By Nicole Minier | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel and the Whitley County Economic Development Corp. are taking an innovative approach to attracting new residents.
With an unemployment rate at one of the lowest in the state at 2.3 percent, employers are struggling to find skilled employees.
That’s where Daniel and the EDC’s Katie Dewitt have stepped in, running a campaign to show off what Columbia City and Whitley County have to offer.
Daniel and the EDC have run several talent attraction advertisements via Facebook and Instagram, reaching out to communities in other states — communities with higher unemployment rates.
Using the social media sites’ targeting options, Daniel has had several campaigns. The first campaign focused on parts of Kentucky, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The current campaign is in Kentucky.
“Facebook allows you to target specific individuals, such as those with specific job experience or family characteristics,” Daniel said.
The talent attraction campaigns have sought out those with experience in advanced manufacturing, tool and die and other career fields that are in need of employees in Whitley County.
“Our goal was to target individuals who had the same skill sets that we need, who are unemployed, looking for a new home, a new place to excel and grow,” Daniel said. “Out of that, we’re having some good success.”
Through Facebook and Google analyzing tools, the city can view data of people who are viewing the advertisement, and people who are engaged in the website.
“We know when people see a Facebook ad, they’re not going to pack up their bags and move up here right that moment,” Dewitt said. “But using the data, we can gauge if people would even consider moving here.”
The EDC’s first advertisement garnered more than 6,000 clicks. Then, Dewitt could see what links people were clicking on. Many looked at job openings, which was Dewitt’s goal. Once people browse beyond the EDC’s site, Dewitt isn’t able to track them much further.
“We notified employers of our campaign and asked them to let us know if they have applicants from those areas,” Dewitt said. “We haven’t heard anything yet, but these things don’t have a fast turnaround. We know it’s going to take time. We see this as a start.”
Several local manufacturing companies have recently reported that they aren’t able to reach capacity or take on new jobs because they don’t have the employees to take on more volume.
Rather than trying to get families to move away from other area communities in Indiana, community leaders are looking outside the state lines for residents who could be contributing members to Whitley County.
“In general, we like to work together as a region,” Dewitt said. “Out of courtesy, we didn’t want to have a campaign in Indiana. We’re all trying to grow. If northeast Indiana is successful, then we will be successful.”
Whether bringing a new employee to work in Whitley County or a new family to live here, it will have a positive impact on the economy.
“We’re especially looking for families to make their homes here,” Daniel said. “If we bring in families, they will have children who attend our schools and get jobs themselves.”
Take a drive through Columbia City, and dozens of “help wanted” signs are posted for various entry level jobs. While the city isn’t attracting residents to fill those jobs, bringing in families with children will help the tax base support the retiring population.
Daniel said he’s taking a focused approach on what types of families he targets. He wants Columbia City to continue to be a safe, thriving community.
“We’re not going to attract anyone who will be a leech on community services,” Daniel said.
Other than analyzing data from the website and social media, it’s difficult to track how successful the campaigns have been, but Daniel said moving in even one family will make a great impact on the city.
“There’s a great return on the investment,” Daniel said. “One new family that works here, spends money here and has children going to our schools will make an impact in many ways.”
Dewitt said the EDC’s month-long campaign that ran in May cost about $1,000.
“For the amount of data we have collected and how deliberate we can be about who the advertisements are reaching, we are getting a lot for our money,” Dewitt said.
School funding is based on enrollment. Additional students will improve the school system’s opportunities. Also, a growing population can attract new restaurants and stores that aren’t available in smaller communities.
Besides having high-paying jobs available, Columbia City and Whitley County have several projects in the works that will be attractive to new families.
Ground breaks on the new Columbia City High School this month. It’s the only high school in the state that will be under construction. Additionally, the city is expected to begin construction on a new $4.2-million aquatics facility this fall. New housing options, such as apartment complexes and new home construction are underway.
Though it’s difficult to track the direct success of the campaigns, Daniel said the city is keeping an eye on surveys done by new utilities customers.
One new customer moved to Columbia City from an area of Illinois that was targeted by the campaign.
Without meeting the family, Daniel doesn’t know for sure if the relocation was based on the Facebook advertisement, but he hopes Whitley County is on the radar for those looking for a new place to call home.
Dewitt said the EDC is considering traveling outside the state for job fairs, putting together a team that could help encourage people to move to Whitley County.