SHOWING INITIATIVE: Rural county embraces states regional objective’
August 30, 2015 1:00 AM
Rural county embraces states regional objective
Rick Sherck was sitting in his office in Albion discussing the Regional Cities Initiative a few hours before northeast Indiana’s final proposal was unveiled.
You might have expected the executive director of the Noble County Economic Development Corporation to be focusing on the parts of the proposal that directly touch his domain, such as the Kendallville Outdoor Recreation Complex, improvements to three town libraries and strands of a regional trail system that may go through Noble County.
But you would have been wrong.
For Sherck, it’s all about northeast Indiana.
“We can’t be focused on what’s in it for me,” Sherck said. “It’s what’s in it for us. For a community to do something that will only impact them, that’s not a regional cities initiative.”
Sherck uses Parkview Field, a 31-mile trip from Albion, as an example of how what benefits Fort Wayne can benefit his county’s communities as well.
When the baseball park was proposed, Sherck remembers laughing at the idea. “I thought, what a waste of money.”
Now he sees it differently. “There are people from Noble County who have season tickets. They may go for baseball, but it’s the experience that they have at the ballpark and in the downtown area as a whole that attracts them to it. You can drive downtown and go to dinner and walk to the ballpark.
“Noble County doesn’t have all the amenities that Fort Wayne has,” Sherck said. “When people go to shop, they go to Fort Wayne. There’s a lot of things you have to go to a bigger city for.”
Of course, Sherck adds, there are lots of reasons for people to live in Noble County, too.
“We have a lot of small communities here that people choose to live in because of the quietness and the quaintness,” he said. There is the lake life – the county has 155 lakes, including the nine connected water bodies in Chain ‘O Lakes State Park. There are lots of places to hike, and bike, that may be enhanced through the regional cities proposal. “When we begin to connect trails from Pokagon to Fort Wayne that may run through Kendallville or to Pokagon and then to Chain ‘O Lakes where people can ride their bikes, that’s going to have regional impact.”
In fact, the regional cities plan projections show that Noble County, like other counties in the region, has the potential to grow and prosper.
But to do that, it must master some problems common to all of northeast Indiana, and some that plague all of non-urban Indiana. There are drug problems. Mental health treatment facilities are scarce, and some of the anchors of rural life, notably organized religion, are not as strong as they used to be.
But Noble’s biggest challenge, in fact, is the one that led Gov. Mike Pence and the legislature to create and fund the Regional Cities Initiative.
The resource Noble County needs to nurture is, quite simply, people. While Allen County grew by almost 3 percent between 2010 and 2014, Noble County’s population increased by less than two-tenths of a percent. Albion, the county seat, lost 1.2 percent of its population in the same period.
Over the past 15 years, more young people have left, and the population has aged; were it not for an influx of Hispanics, the county would not have grown at all.
“When I think of the challenge we have,” Sherck said, “it’s the workforce.”
On an August day, the seemingly endless fields of corn and soybeans would suggest that Noble County is all about agriculture.
But 48 percent of its jobs and 58 percent of its wages come from manufacturing.
“A lot of our economy revolves around manufacturing,” Sherck said. “We have to attract and develop the workforce to continue to help that be successful.” The worry is: Who will replace the baby boomers in those factory jobs when they retire?
Part of the answer for Noble County, Sherck believes, is simply doing a better job of reminding its young people of the opportunities they could take advantage of without moving away, and offering workers an opportunity to develop their skills and advance at their jobs.
“We never developed a strategy to market manufacturing to the students that walk through the halls of Noble County schools,” Sherck said.
“If you know your path, and you really know what you want to be, go to college and get that going,” Sherck said.
For some, he said, finishing high school and going into a manufacturing job – or planning to return to work in manufacturing after going to college – might make sense.
But those choices and opportunities haven’t been stressed in the past.
“We talk about career readiness in Noble County,” he said. “It includes college readiness, but it also includes people who say, you know what, I really don’t think I can go to college. What am I going to do?”
Noble’s effort to attract and retain employees also includes an after-work training program industries have developed with Northeast Indiana Works, allowing employees to improve their skills and boost their pay grades.
The program has offered classes in welding, maintenance tech and CNC (computer numerical control) machining.
Sherck knows, though, it’s also about quality of life. That’s where the regional development approach makes sense to him.
Sherck was hired as Noble County’s first economic development director in 2006, about the time the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership also began. Sherck is the only remaining member of the original group of EDCs that began what was then the strange, new process of trying to work together..
Back then, he said, even cities within the counties were working at cross purposes. Cooperation with Fort Wayne was not on the horizon.
“It’s awfully hard to market a community to come and live in. ... A regional approach is so much better.”
Indeed, the biggest benefit of the Regional Cities competition may not be the possibility of state money, but the way it’s reinforced the concept of regional collaboration.
“Look how far we’ve come in 10 years,” Sherck said. “And imagine what we could do in another 10 years.”
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.
Noble County...........47,618(up 0.17 percent)
Allen County...........365,918 (up 2.99 percent)
Indiana.................6,595,855 (up 1.74 percent)
25-39 age group
Noble..........................8,379 (down 4.7 percent)
Allen.........................71,201 (up 2 percent)
Indiana.................1,247,901 (up 0.3 percent)
Noble County: 10 percent Hispanic (fifth highest percentage in the state)
0.7 percent African-American
Allen County: 7 percent Hispanic
12.2 percent African-American
Indiana: 6.4 percent Hispanic
9.5 percent African-American
Average pay, 2014
Poverty rate, 2013
Food stamps, 2013
10.6 percent of county residents
10-year increase:153.1 percent
15.3 percent of county residents
10-year increase: 106 percent
14 percentof state residents
10-year increase: 89.2 percent
Noble: 21 percent Evangelical or Mainline Protestant
6 percent Catholic
71 percent Unclaimed
(atheist, agnostic, no affiliation, or adherent to undetermined sects.)
Allen: 37 percent Protestant
16 percent Catholic
46 percent Unclaimed
Education of population
over 25, 2013
Some college, no degree
Bachelor’s degree and higher 13.2 percent
Some college, no degree 23.1
Associate’s degree 9.4
Bachelor’s degree and higher 26.3
Some college, no degree 20.9
Associate’s degree 5.8
Bachelor’s degree and higher 23.2 percent
Sources: Community Research Institute of IPFW; research by Valerie Richardson
The Lutheran Foundation’s 2014 Mental and Behavioral Assessment (more information may be found at areyouthebody.com.) The Road to One Million: Northeast Indiana Regional Cities Initiative Proposal (http://www.neindiana.com