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Seeking to improve Kosciusko County community, ‘Conversation’ draws crowd

December 2nd, 2016

By Dan Spalding for the Times-Union | Indiana Economic Digest

Winona Lake –

Each of the two dozen tables set up at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center Tuesday included table top displays that highlighted statistics about Kosciusko County.

Among the stats, the county ranks 10th in the state in average wage per job and one in every four jobs are related to orthopedics.

But looking beyond those figures that underscore a sturdy economic foundation was a desire among an estimated 160 guests to explore new ways to further improve life in Kosciusko County.

Participants at Tuesday’s Community Conversation 3.0, the third such gathering in the past six years, focused on developing some ideas that could be whittled down into a few solid proposals for future consideration.

To spark conversation, organizers of the morning event featured segments of the documentary “Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana,” a PBS series production that was released earlier this year to coincide with the state’s bicentennial celebration.

The film touched on the struggles of some Indiana communities and the success of others, including Warsaw and its orthopedic history.

While that portion of the film elicited some pride among the locals, Tom Till took a different approach.

Till, the director of Ivy Tech’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Center, which in part specifically aims to train people to work in the orthopedic industry, said the community has no time to rest on its laurels.

Beyond working to attract new companies, an effort needs to be made toward retaining existing companies. He pointed to the downfall of Gary’s steel industry, which has been devastated by international competition in recent decades.

“We are in competition for our jobs right now,” Till said. “Companies in Ireland and companies in China would love to take every orthopedic job we have in Warsaw and make it theirs.”

In between segments of the film, participants were asked to consider several questions, including whether there is enough sense of innovation and what else needs to be done to boost the county.

Among the many ideas thrown out, one person suggested expansion of the Greenway bike paths into smaller towns such as Pierceton, Mentone and Milford, a move that one person said might help attract millennials.

The need to diversify the economy beyond orthopedics also was mentioned as was the need to further “brand” the community.

More than one person suggested the need to expand high-speed internet into rural areas. One man said the current circumstances are needed to bridge what has become “a huge new digital divide.”

Another idea: Develop the county fairgrounds into a community focal point, an enticing idea because much of the land sits along the shores of Winona Lake. One major drawback, though, is that the property is privately owned by Kosciusko County Community Fair Inc., which oversees the annual county fair.

Ideas gathered from each of the groups of participants will be reviewed and forwarded to members of the Kosciusko Leadership Academy, who will likely present some ideas after the first of the year, said Rob Parker, executive director of the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce.

Parker said they hope local stakeholders could embrace the pared-down list of initiatives and be the driving force behind accomplishing the work.

In addition to the KLA and the chamber, other groups helping sponsor the event included Kosciusko County Community Foundation, Grace College, OrthoWorx, K21 Health Foundation and United Way of Kosciusko County.