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Sunday, July 08, 2018 1:00 am

The next step

Quality of life essential in making Fort Wayne a jobs destination

John Urbahns

It's no secret that Allen County has strong economic momentum. In 2017, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. assisted companies with 28 business expansions and relocations, 1,838 new jobs, $81 million in new annual payroll and $242 million in total private investment.

And, for the first time ever, Allen County issued more than $1 billion in building permits in a single year, mostly outside Fort Wayne city limits. We continue to see new building projects rising across the county, from downtown Fort Wayne to Huntertown, New Haven and Woodburn.

We celebrate these successes, but our sights are set higher. We're not competing against our own past performance. We're competing to make Allen County the best mid-sized community in the United States. And we have a long way to go.

A 2017 study of “best performing cities” by the Milken Institute ranked Fort Wayne 128th among 200 metro areas, based on wage growth and high-tech GDP. We ranked well behind competitor communities such as Grand Rapids, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; and Des Moines, Iowa.

How can we turn that around and build a nationally recognized economy in Allen County for ourselves and the next generation? What can we do to take the next step? To plot our course, first we must understand the landscape.

According to a Department of Labor report released last month, the U.S. now has more job openings than unemployed workers to fill them. It's the first time this has been the case since the U.S. began tracking this metric in 2001.

Nationwide, there are 6.7 million job openings and 6.35 million unemployed workers, leaving a gap of about 350,000 jobs with no one to fill them. Nowhere is this squeeze felt more acutely than in the Midwest, where the majority of that gap is concentrated. Why? Because the Midwest's population growth lags that of every other region.

Migration turnaround?

Allen County is no exception. Since 1990, we have lost more than 21,000 more residents than we were able to attract from other communities – a nasty case of negative domestic migration. State-level data show us that those lost most likely had households headed by someone with a bachelor's or advanced degree. Had we successfully retained those residents and attracted others, Allen County's population growth would have exceeded, not lagged behind, the nation. Our workforce would be more highly skilled. And our local tax base would have retained about $13.5 million in revenue in 2017 alone.

Recent news has been much better. In 2017, for the first time since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking these statistics 27 years ago, Allen County recorded a positive domestic migration number, thanks to a net gain of 21 domestic migrants – small progress, but progress nonetheless. In addition, Allen County's one-year labor-force growth registered a 23-year high, and our unemployment rate will soon be less than 3.0 percent.

But with jobs plentiful and qualified workers scarce, the battle to attract and retain workforce is more fierce than ever. It's becoming common for the most talented workers to have a variety of options for where to put down roots. An in-demand electrician or engineer could stay here in Fort Wayne, or find work in Fort Worth.

Companies understand this. In the past two years, we've met with more than 1,000 Allen County business leaders. They've told us, almost unanimously, that their main challenge is attracting and retaining a skilled workforce. When we recruit new businesses to come to Allen County, companies look for a business-friendly community with the amenities that will help them attract the most talented workers in the nation. We have done well to establish a low cost of living. But if low costs are all we have to offer, companies will go elsewhere.

That's why, to become a nationally recognized economy, we must invest in community amenities. We must become a place our residents see as too good to leave, and that newcomers see as too good to pass up.

This is certainly a different approach from what we're accustomed to. For a local example of the power of quality-of-place investments, look no further than Parkview Field. The project jump-started the heart of the city, spurring more than $250 million of private investments such as Ash Skyline Tower, Superior Lofts and more. As we see, wise investments can yield remarkable returns.

Traditionally, economic development was all about being the lowest-cost option, for people and for businesses. Today, there's a new paradigm at play. While costs are still critically important, quality of place is the final piece of the puzzle. Other cities adopted this strategy years ago. If we want to compete for high-wage jobs, it's time for us to catch up.

We can also draw on examples from other Midwestern cities such as Columbus, Ohio; Grand Rapids; and Des Moines. These communities are experiencing growth by investing in quality of place.

Columbus transformed a long-vacant industrial yard into Grandview Yard, a now-thriving neighborhood with apartments, office, retail and hotel space. Grand Rapids developed a downtown public market that's open seven days a week, supporting local food entrepreneurs with a farmers market, cooking classes and an incubator kitchen for startup food businesses. Des Moines built its riverfront into a local hot spot with restaurants, a museum, a landscaped Riverwalk that's perfect for walking tours, a sculpture park and more.

Anchor institutions have played key roles in these transformations. Nationwide Insurance, a top employer in Columbus, was a leader in making Grandview Yard a reality. Bloomberg recently reported on Ford Motor Company's investments in downtown Detroit, converting a massive 104-year-old train station and other historic sites into office space. These unique spaces help attract cutting-edge jobs and the sought-after workers who fill them.

In a separate article, Bloomberg covered another community: Fort Wayne. The piece was titled “The U.S. cities left behind now get their turn.” It's true: If we are willing to adapt to a changing world, it will indeed be our turn to build a nationally recognized economy.

Government can't, nor should it be expected to, do this on its own. But neither can the business community. It requires a shared vision and a shared commitment from the public and private sectors.

The world is changing. We must be creative and adjust along with it.

We have a choice. If we do not continually raise our game in Allen County, people will choose to live elsewhere, companies (and jobs) will follow them and we will be left behind. Or, we can choose to grow our economy by investing in ourselves.

It's up to us. It's our turn. It's our time.

John Urbahns is executive vice president of economic development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc.