State urging regional teamwork

November 10th, 2014

News Coverage:

Published: November 10, 2014 3:00 a.m.

State urging regional teamwork

Initiative stresses attracting young workers

Dave Gong | The Journal Gazette

Regional development is a key component in continuing to grow Indiana’s economy.

That’s the focus of the Regional Cities Initiative, a push from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation to encourage the state’s regions to drive growth through collaborative efforts and public-private partnerships.

IEDC President Eric Doden presented the initiative on Oct. 30 at Sweetwater Sound, the last stop in a tour of five cities including Evansville, Sellersburg, Indianapolis and Crown Point.

“Population stagnation leads to decline and decline leads to situations like Detroit and some other cities we’ve seen,” Doden said. “When you start struggling with population decline, it’s very difficult to turn that around.”

The IEDC recently undertook a national study of rising cities to find out what concepts could be applied in Indiana to encourage regional growth. The study looked at 11 cities that have led the nation in growth over the past 20 years and their surrounding communities, serving as examples of how a strong regional focus can drive economic development. The 11 cities included Austin, Texas; Denver; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Although Indiana’s population is growing – the state’s population increased from 6 million to 6.4 million people over the past 10 years – 80 percent of that growth is attributed to more births than deaths, Doden said. But the number of Indiana residents of “prime working age” – 25 to 44 years old – is declining.

That means Indiana needs to find new and better ways to entice people, young people in particular, to move to Indiana, Doden said.

The importance of regionalism is nothing new to Fort Wayne Deputy Mayor Karl Bandemer, who said economic growth in northeast Indiana has been on the rise for a while.

“I think there’s been a growing recognition within the 10-county region that Fort Wayne is an asset to the region, as well as Fort Wayne recognizing that the surrounding counties and communities are an asset to us,” he said.

Bandemer said the city administration is “very supportive of regionalism” and works to collaborate with area leaders on economic development and growth.

“We interface with one another, mayor to mayor,” he said. “We’re involved in the Northeast Indiana Mayors Round Table, we’re involved in the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, and there are numerous avenues and opportunities for us to interface and work together collectively.”

The Riverfront Fort Wayne project, Bandemer said, is one example of a project that has strong regional implications. The Riverfront project is a multi-phase project to update the city’s riverfront with attractions, activities, shopping and dining, and integrate it into downtown Fort Wayne.

Officials from other cities and counties in the region, Bandemer said, have already started expressing interest in Fort Wayne’s riverfront.

All of this adds to a region’s quality of life, Bandemer said – something that is “extremely important” as the workforce gets younger. Young people, Bandemer said, tend to discriminate more when it comes to an area’s quality of life.

“I think it’s becoming almost more important than economic incentives to some degree,” he said. “You have to attract quality employees, and if you’re going to attract quality employees, salary is important, but also it’s important to know they’ll have a quality of life they can afford.”

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is one organization that’s taking an interest in young, qualified talent to help build and promote the region.

It’s doing that by trying to increase the percentage of the regional adult workforce with a college degree or certification to 60 percent by 2025, said Courtney Tritch, the organization’s vice president of marketing. The region is currently hovering around 37 percent.

It’s all part of the Vision 2020 Plan, which Tritch said is a “cradle to career effort” designed to not only attract new talent but to retain existing talent.

“We can’t accomplish that 60 percent just by turning out more graduates,” Tritch said. “We also have to look at attracting talent as well.”

The plan focuses on five issues: attracting 21st-century talent and improving the business climate, entrepreneurship, infrastructure and quality of life. Attracting 21st-century talent entails engaging in development to help attract more working-age adults with those coveted college degrees to the area.

“We know we can’t be competitive globally if we don’t have the workforce to be competitive,” Tritch said.

Strong urban centers are also a key component to building a strong regional identity, Tritch said. The regional partnership works with site selectors, who have stressed the importance of a strong urban core – especially when trying to attract young talent.

“The urban core is vital to the region – they need each other and they feed off of each other,” Tritch said. “You might have people who work in an outlying county but want to live in a metro area or vice versa. There are a lot of executives who want to live on the lakes in Angola but want to work in Fort Wayne, for example.”

Although a strong quality of life can be important to employees considering relocating to a new area, it’s actually pretty low on the priority list when site selectors consider new locations for businesses, said Paige Webster, president of Webster Global Site Selectors in Phoenix.

“It depends really on if you’re having upper management living there,” he said. “If they’re hiring a local manager, they’re probably already living in the area, so obviously the quality of life is already good for them.”

Quality of life is subjective – what’s important to one person may not be important to another – Webster said, and is “a variable we can’t really put an objective number to.”

Mostly, when helping a company choose whether to relocate to a new area, Webster said site selectors focus on analyzing labor costs, transportation costs, real estate costs, utility costs and the incentive packages communities offer to attract a business.

For the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, it’s all about making “lasting changes” in the region.

To do that, Tritch said the partnership is “willing to take on big challenges” – such as remedying some misconceptions about northeast Indiana.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about the area is that we don’t have an airport or that we don’t have great air service,” Tritch said.

To help change that misconception, the partnership worked to expand air travel service to the Fort Wayne International Airport, adding two destinations.

On Oct. 2, the first flights bound for Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina, took off from Fort Wayne International.