Today, the chatter on the street among Northeast Indiana residents include a few simple keywords: attract, develop and retain talent to improve quality of life.
But what does this actually mean to the average citizen? Where can we see evidence of these efforts in our community today? What does this mean for the future of the region?
These are all important questions to the organization on the forefront of economic and regional development in Northeast Indiana, and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is working with community and businesses leaders in 10 counties to get the point across.
After almost 10 years working to develop the region, the partnership and its five-year-old Vision 2020 program are working to transform Northeast Indiana into a top global competitor by focusing on a common mission to develop, attract and retain talent.
What does develop, attract and retain talent mean?
If “develop, attract and retain talent” sounds like corporate mumbo-jumbo think again. It's much bigger than that.
When the partnership first started, it was because of the staggering decline of annual per capita personal income in the region. Simply, it meant area residents were not making enough money due to the economic and business climate in Northeast Indiana.
That became even more apparent in 2009 when region fell to its lowest as regional residents were only making 80 cents on the dollar.
To help combat this growing decline, the partnership reached out to the community to help establish one regional voice and vision to market to business investors. More than 1,000 community leaders and members attended the meeting at the Grand Wayne Center and voted on what economic, business and community development improvements need to be.
Ryan Twiss, Big Goal Collaborative Director for Vision 2020, said it was apparent at the time the region needed to build a community that business development professionals can really sell to bring in new businesses investment but to also help current businesses expand.
“There was just a number of things that were really need to bolster from a product perspective,” Twiss said.
Then the strategy was born.
Through discussion and research, Vision 2020 developed five focus points or pillars, which are: 21st century talent, business climate, entrepreneurship, infrastructure and quality of life.
Then within each pillar are top priorities:
-The top priority for 21st century talent is increasing the number of higher education and skilled workers.
-The top priority for the region's business climate is streamlined permitting and air service at the Fort Wayne International Airport.
-The top priority for entrepreneurship is developing the ecosystem.
-The top priority for infrastructure is regional broadband and regional interstate accessibility.
-The top priority for quality of life in Northeast Indiana is downtown Fort Wayne riverfront development.
After studying successful regions across the country including Denver, Cincinnati, Wichita, Charlotte and recently Des Moines, the partnership found that no one pillar can effectively transform the economy of Northeast Indiana. It's about balance between economic, business and community development in the region.
Projects in the works
The Vision 2020 team has already made huge achievements for the 10-county region.
Lauren Zuber, project coordinator, worked with the Fort Wayne Airport Authority to secure two new flights to Charlotte and Philadelphia, which started in October.
The flights were a much-needed regular East Coast connection for business people. The airport's capacity increased 12 percent in 2014 thanks to the addition of new nonstop flights.
The added flights are also an important part of regional growth. Airport officials said on average, airports the size of Fort Wayne nationally are supposed to grow two percent annually, but Fort Wayne is growing at a rate of 27 percent.
“We have a lot of people to thank for the addition of new air service at FWA and the resulting increase in the airport's traffic. The Airport Authority worked with several community partners to bring in new service, including the City of Fort Wayne, Allen County, Greater Fort Wayne Inc., and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. Without their help, and the support of the region's travelers, FWA wouldn't be growing the way that it is,” said Scott Hinderman, executive director of airports for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, in a press release.”
John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, said improving transportation access is key to attracting new business investment, which is why FWA's new flights are a critical priority in the region's Vision 2020 initiative.
“FWA's continued growth proves that Northeast Indiana is a contender in the global market; by standing together, we are making great strides in creating a successful future for our region,” said John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.
Standing together is key to develop, attract and retain talent, too. It's more than just staffers like Zuber working toward improving the region. It's also thanks to the regional stakeholders.
Finding one voice for the future
To become a top global competitor, the region must exceed the expectations of businesses and residents by speaking with one voice. Today, that one voice is comprised of more than 100 community, government and business leaders that make up the partnership's Regional Opportunities Council or ROC.
“The only way anything like this is possible is because of community engagement. We have more than 100-member leadership body and those leaders represent thousands and thousands of individuals that are engaged in improving this region. It's critical to understand that while our logo may be on the materials. This is really an effort by the region and we are helping steering the ship,” Twiss said.
Currently, these leaders have been working on the upcoming Regional Cities Initiative proposal due July 1. The initiative is a statewide program proposed by Gov. Mike Pence that could provide $84 million to jump-start quality of life programs like riverfront development.
It's competitive, too. Other regions are also vying for the state funding.
However, for Northeast Indiana, the quality of life projects including riverfront development will happen no matter what. If the region's proposal is accepted, the state funding will task-track these quality of life improvements. It the region is not chosen, the projects will still happen, it will just take much longer.
Amy Hestings, manager for Vision 2020 said, all in all, the Regional Cities Initiative's purpose is to grow the population in Northeast Indiana.
“We need to make sure Northeast Indiana continues to attract, develop and retain talent. We feel that the way to do that is to make our region attractive to young people so they want to come here. If we can get a push from the Regional Cities Initiative to move forward that would be incredible. At the end of the day, we will have a really strong plan around quality of life initiatives so that itself is very important. Funding or no funding, these quality of life improvements are going to happen,” Hestings said.
For the folks at Vision 2020, it clear the work will not be completed by 2020. The riverfront development plan itself is a 50-year plan.
Hestings said just like anything else, the partnership will keep moving forward and finding ways to improve the region through development.
“We are always going to be doing work to make our region a better place. I don't think everything will be resolved and that we can't just put a bow on everything in 2020. I think there is always more to do. They are difficult priorities. None of these are low hanging fruit. They take a long time, but that's why we chose them. They are the right priorities and we will continue to work to move them forward. It's not about making us better, making our partnership stronger, it's about making the region better,” Hestings said.