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Strong business growth cushions impact of Vera Bradley closing in New Haven

Thursday, June 4, 2015 - 12:01 am

The city of New Haven experienced a turnaround in a two-day span.

“Vera Bradley shutting down its Adams Center Road facility and idling 250 workers was a complete surprise,” said Brian Yoh, New Haven’s director of planning and economic development of the Fort Wayne-based purse and accessories maker’s March announcement. “We were just plain shocked and greatly disappointed. That’s a lot of people to take out of the local workforce.

“We were equally surprised and shocked to get a phone call just 36 hours after Vera Bradley made its announcement from a firm interested in those workers. They wanted to come to the New Haven City Hall and begin negotiating to absorb all 250 workers in their company within the next 12 months. That’s something that just doesn’t happen in economic development,” he added.

The company, which he would not identify, is particularly interested in the skills of the former Vera Bradley workers. Yoh pointed out that the company wants people who are skilled at sewing.

What could have been a major blow to the New Haven economy, at least temporarily, has been neutralized.

“And,” Yoh said, “there’s a good chance the former Vera Bradley factory will be filled by the end of 2015. A lot of good things are happening in our area. New Haven weathered the 2008 recession quite well. Though we don’t have a big inventory of existing structures to offer, we do have a few good, solid existing buildings and a number of interested clients who like what they see in the city and the quality of life it offers newcomers.”

The opening of the $25 million FedEx Ground processing facility with 100 new jobs and the $4 million expansion of Continental Diamond Tool with its addition of 50 jobs has helped put the city on solid ground. The backbone of the local economy, of course, is the world headquarters of Do it Best Corp., along with Parker Precision Cooling Systems and a substantial list of medium and smaller firms. Even the off-track betting facility at New Haven Plaza has added to the city’s industry diversity.

New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald said the biggest problem in economic development is the lack of skilled workers.

“Because schools have eliminated tangible-skills programs such as home economics, wood shop and metal shop, there is a growing skills gap which definitely impacts the area economy,” McDonald said. “Industry is scrambling to find qualified workers skilled at welding, computer lathe operators, computer aided design specialists and industrial maintenance people.

“We’re working with East Allen County Schools to develop a program that would teach the trades and allow young people to earn college credit for their studies. They could then go on to Ivy Tech or Indiana Tech or directly into the job market and make a nice living. We are competing for a $3 million grant from the Frontier Communications ABC (Americans Best Communities) program that would help seed such a school. If we can get this program in operation and be able to turn out workers with needed skills, it will give us a decided advantage over other communities in the economic development arena.

“2015 looks great,” McDonald said, “and New Haven’s future looks excellent. Though the economy in general looks good, we can’t control outside pressures that impact us, specifically unfunded government mandates that put additional stress on our budget. ... These things, along with shrinking road dollars and rising costs, aren’t going to bankrupt the city, but it makes us take a very conservative look at what we can do with the funds available when establishing priorities for tackling infrastructure projects.

“Our plan is to aggressively do what it takes to make New Haven a city that offers a desirable quality of life. If we can do that, current business will expand and new industries will be enticed to come to New Haven.”