These projects can keep Wells County in ‘the game’ - if it wants

September 11th, 2017

By Mark Miller for The News-Banner | Indiana Economic Digest

It seems there is a “power of two” of sorts, at least for me. It often takes two times of hearing something before it soaks in. At least.

My wife and I maintain strong ties to our neighboring city of Decatur. We met there in high school, I spent my first 22 years in this business there, and we still worship in the church we both grew up in and in which we were married. We are in Decatur enough to notice what’s going on to some degree.

When I heard that the old Schafer Co. glove factory was being torn down, my curiosity was aroused. I learned that the city had purchased the long-empty and long-deteriorating brick building on downtown’s east side and thus assumed taxpayers were also paying for its demolition.

“Wow,” I thought. Although a fan of government encouragement and facilitating projects to improve quality of life and the community’s aesthetics, this seemed a bit aggressive.

Then, last Tuesday, our guest speaker at the Bluffton Rotary Club was Michael Galbraith, director of the Road to One Million project of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. Those in attendance got an update on the efforts to increase the population of the 11-county region to one million people by 2031. We are currently a bit below 800,000.

Getting there involves a number of efforts aimed at developing and retaining young talent — not just retaining more young people after they graduate from high school and go off to college or vocational school, but attracting others who are not native to northeast Indiana. That is to be done by encouraging entrepreneurship, improving our infrastructure (including more access to high speed internet) and that magic phrase: “Quality of Life.”

Unfortunately, northeast Indiana — mostly rural counties — has a reputation of not being a “cool” place to live. And not just with young Americans.

Rotarian Derek Myers, president of Bluffton-based Neoti, shared a recent experience during a trip to China to visit his electronics suppliers and discuss new ventures with other business leaders there. Much to his aggravation, he found that in the mind of international businessmen, if you are not living in a major metropolitan area, you must not be quite up to par.

“This is the perception, the reputation, that we are working to change,” Galbraith said. “And we must.”

He pointed out that the recent Regional Cities Initiative funded projects in 10 of the region’s 11 counties, the one exception being Wells. “We would love to make that 11 out of 11,” he said, adding that there may still be some funds available.

All of this work is due to the basics of economic development being turned upside down. Whereas the focus used to be on attracting companies that will then attract workers, the focus now is on attracting workers with higher skills and education, which will then attract the jobs. And not just any jobs, higher paying jobs.

More and more, young people and even mid-career professionals are choosing where they want to live before looking for a job.

“Quality of Place” is the new catchphrase, an update of efforts to improve a community’s “Quality of Life.” Wells County and Bluffton made a major — and successful — effort in that regard in the wake of the Corning Glass plant closing in the mid-1980s. That resulted in the Rivergreenway which, we often hear, was widely regarded as a “dumb idea” when first proposed.

As the region’s hub, Fort Wayne is working on a riverfront project and there is a proposal for a new downtown arena. They are both controversial, despite the success of the downtown baseball field which drew pretty intense opposition but has not only been successful in its own right but has spurred other housing and commercial development. There is no question that downtown Fort Wayne is “cool” again.

As I left that meeting, this “power of two” thing popped into my head, and I wondered what exactly our neighbors to the east were up to.

I’ve known Decatur Mayor Ken Meyer for quite a few years, dating back to when he was a manager at the Carter Lumber location on US 224 and I was the advertising manager at the Decatur newspaper. Our paths have crossed a number of times since, so that a phone call gave us a welcome chance to catch up. In fact, it took a good 15 to 20 minutes before we got around to why I had called.

There is a good story as to how the city came to purchase the Schafer building after a couple of efforts by private developers failed. But the actual amount of taxpayer funds in this is much less than I had understood.

Decatur put together an application to the Stellar Communities program in 2014. This is, briefly, a multi-agency state level competition which has awarded $3-4 million to two communities each year since 2011. Decatur made the finals but was ultimately not selected. Another effort was made in 2015 but again fell short. 

However, at least two positives (there’s that number again) came out of those efforts: 1) a detailed proposal to make one block of Madison Street a “gateway” from downtown to the St. Marys River which would accommodate events such as summer concerts and farmers markets; and 2) a successful capital campaign for private sector money (one of the Stellar application requirements) to help fund this and other “Quality of Place” plans.

That fund has grown to about $237,000 “and still coming in,” Meyer says, since pledges were made to be paid over a three-year period.

All of those efforts are now bringing unexpected results. Decatur’s preeminent developer, Kevan Biggs, who is also involved in the huge redevelopment of the GE campus in Fort Wayne, partnered with the city by funding the demolition of the Schafer building and will develop apartments in another iconic downtown building. Plans are moving forward to change Madison Street into a parkway with more new developments along Decatur’s riverfront on both sides of the river.

“We don’t have a place where we can put a stage and amphitheater like you have in Bluffton,” he laments. “Wish we did, that’s pretty neat.”

He foresees the total costs approaching a million dollars easily, but feels confident the city can handle up to half of that while private funds will do the rest. When asked if the county is kicking anything in, he replies that they have not been asked — it’s just something the city has not considered during these efforts which he is quick to point out were initiated by his predecessor, John Schultz.

“He got a group together that really started all of this,” Kenny says. “They were mostly younger people but included others, some ‘veterans’ so to speak. They called themselves ‘Greater Decatur’ and did all this visioning.”

Which sounds a lot like Bluffton NOW!, which brings us to another “power of two” — the combined projects of the downtown plaza and the extension of the Interurban Trail.

Support for these projects have come from this Saturday space at least twice and, I must honestly report, has brought mixed reactions from our readers. Frankly, I understand the angst some have expressed as to whether this will be money well spent both downtown and in extending the trail “to nowhere” as one put it.

Even after admitting they had been wrong on both the original Rivergreenway project and the Interurban Trail along North Main Street, one person doesn’t see the purpose in extending the trail to Lancaster Park. I have yet to find a person who doesn’t think the walking and biking trail along the Wabash River is not a huge community asset, yet extending that idea received a good deal of skepticism for the first leg of the Interurban Trail. I travel North Main often — perhaps an average of more than four times a day — and have yet to not see someone walking or riding.

And while the downtown plaza will require the relocation of one of a small number of businesses in downtown that have a retail component, and while there can be no guarantee that it will have even a fraction of the revitalization impact that Parkview Field has had on downtown Fort Wayne, it is a bold and positive move that has the best chance we’ve seen.

The Bluffton NOW! group has worked diligently to do this “visioning” thing. It deserves the support of both the city and county governments and just as importantly, the community’s private sector support as well as from individuals.

Add to all this a column we selected for Thursday’s paper by Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, who opined that “It is time to move well beyond the five-year business-attraction plan and focus on attracting people. Communities that persist in doing the same old things will continue to get the same old results.”

The Decatur mayor likes how the chambers of commerce in Adams County has found new ways to work together. There is a new feeling of collaboration. He sees the regional efforts to attract people and businesses. He figures all of this will enjoy some degree of success. People will be looking for a great place to live and raise families.

“I want to give them a choice of where to move to,” Meyer says. Doesn’t matter if they work in Fort Wayne or Bluffton, he wants to give those who are attracted to the area a reason to live in Decatur as well as bringing those back who grew up in his community. “That’s the game we’re all playing,” he concludes.

That “power of two” thing … we have the downtown plaza and the Interurban Trail extension projects to put on the table. Are we in the game?