Wabash County trying to attract innovative small businesses

June 13th, 2016

News Coverage:

June 12, 2016

Wabash County trying to attract innovative small businesses

Mackenzi Klemann | Wabash Plain Dealer

A behind-the-scenes effort is underway to incubate technological innovation in Wabash County.

“We’re probably not going to draw a large company, a Google or something like that, to put their headquarters here because we’re not Silicon Valley,” President and CEO of the Economic Development Group of Wabash County Keith Gillenwater said. “But what we do have the ability to do is have people that have small businesses here that we’re trying to support.”

Gillenwater believes that while Wabash County may never see a Google-sized investment here, local entrepreneurs could build web and mobile applications, also known as apps, right here in the county.

“We have the (wireless) infrastructure here, we have water, we have all the kinds of things that data centers typically would need, so how do we try to bring something like that here,” he said.

The technology sector is one of the nation’s largest and growing employers.

And Gillenwater is not the only local leader to acknowledge the technology industry’s growing influence in the American economy, as area school districts have emphasized web development and computer programming skills, often referred to as “coding,” in their curricula alongside other tech-literacy initiatives.

“You don’t need 500 people (to develop an app),” Gillenwater said, noting that the recently launched Entrepreneur’s EDG support group could help small businesses in this area. “You need two people with a good idea and who know how to collaborate.”

Gillenwater said that outside of encouraging small business innovation, the county will also have to incubate a tech-savvy workforce if it is going to compete for technology and web-based jobs in the future.

“It’s kind of the chicken or the egg type of thing,” he said. “Before you can draw an industry here you have to have the talent here. It’s hard to build that talent if you don’t have jobs for them either. And so we have to work on both things at the same time so you have to work on getting talent and get people here who have that skill set.”

While growth in the tech sector may be a possibility, advanced manufacturing continues to dominate the local and state economy.

According to a recent study from the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research, Indiana has among the nation’s highest levels of advanced manufacturing jobs, with 8.4 percent of Indiana’s workforce employed in this sector.

The study, conducted by Dr. Srikant Devaraj and Dr. Michael Hicks, found that diversification and educational attainment were important to sustaining growth in these industries, which include defense, medical device and vehicle production, among others.

“States or regions with advanced manufacturing presence in only one sector may be far more vulnerable to cyclical downturns, changes in consumer demand, workplace automation or exposure to competition from imports than regions with a broader distribution of manufactured goods,” the study said.

Gillenwater, too, has emphasized the importance of maintaining a diverse economy in Wabash County.

“We have spent most of our time on attraction efforts working with smaller companies,” he said, noting that he would rather have “eight employers with 100 employees” than one large employer who goes bust. “We actually are pretty diverse for a community our size.”

Among Wabash County’s top 10 employers are Ford Meter Box, Living Essentials, Parkview Wabash Hospital and Peabody Retirement Community.