The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 19, 2021 1:00 am

Region booster group forming

To help others in planning but not duplicate efforts

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Allen County's economic development efforts seemed scattered a decade ago.

A consolidation push led officials to create Greater Fort Wayne Inc. by merging the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance.

The alliance itself was created by a merger a decade earlier, funded in equal parts by the city, the county and the chamber. The goal was to combine their business attraction, retention and expansion efforts.

Merger mania might be finished, however. A new group now getting off the ground shares the same three priorities as those outlined in the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership's Vision 2030 plan: increase the population, increase per capita personal income and increase educational attainment.

But officials on the Northeast Indiana Strategic Development Commission say their efforts won't duplicate existing efforts.

Ron Turpin, the commission's chairman, said the new group will create a road map for how other organizations should tackle the region's shared goals. The commission's third meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday.

“If you think about it, we don't really have a plan,” Turpin said during a phone interview. “This is nothing more than a planning commission.”

The Indiana General Assembly wants “a third party who's not invested in any of these organizations to look over the landscape,” he added.

Regional approach

Northeast Indiana is home to two types of economic development groups – those that work on behalf of a city or county and those that represent the interests of the region as a whole.

Greater Fort Wayne Inc., for example, pursues business investment for Fort Wayne and Allen County. Adams, DeKalb, Kosciusko and other counties in the region have their own economic development organizations focused on winning investments inside their borders.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, in contrast, represents the combined interests of Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties.

Before the Regional Partnership's creation, the region's counties would sometimes undermine each other in attempts to secure business investment.

The Regional Partnership inherited the work previously done by the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council. The Corporate Council's goals included creating a regional brand identity, pitching the area to companies and creating an online presence.

It was the Regional Partnership that assembled and lobbied for “The Road to One Million,” northeast Indiana's successful bid for $42 million in state economic development funding awarded in 2016.

The Regional Cities Initiative, which selected three regions to receive grants, was designed to fast-track bold projects that improve quality of life, making regions more attractive to talented young workers. Employers considering making an investment evaluate the size and quality of a community's workforce.

Key differences?

The Regional Partnership isn't alone in promoting northeast Indiana's interests.

Other groups include the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana Inc., the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority, the Regional Opportunities Council, the Northeast Indiana Mayors and Commissioners Caucus and, now, the Northeast Indiana Strategic Development Commission.

“There probably appears to be a little bit of redundancy,” said Jeff Turner, the Regional Partnership's interim CEO and Strategic Development Commission member. He also was the first chairman of the Regional Development Authority.

“There is clear overlap, there's no question about that, in the mission of these groups,” Turner added. “There is certainly no animosity or antagonism or working at cross purposes.”

Legal restrictions prompted creation of some regional entities.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. required each area to establish a regional development authority to handle any money received from the Regional Cities Initiative, for example.

And the Northeast Indiana Fund is a nonprofit created to accept donations from foundations and others that support the Regional Partnership's mission.

The Strategic Development Commission was also created to meet specific legal capabilities.

Bill Konyha, president and CEO of the Regional Chamber, is a non-voting member of the commission. He said northwest Indiana has its own strategic development commission, which receives $10 million to $12 million every two years as part of Indiana's biennial budget.

Northeast Indiana's advocates want this region to receive its own line item in the state's budget, he said. Not having a commission felt like leaving money on the table.

The Mayors and Commissioners Caucus championed the Strategic Development Commission's creation during this year's General Assembly session.

“This is a private-public partnership with the state, created by the state,” Konyha said, adding that the commission becomes eligible to receive state funds after it submits a plan and receives approval from the state legislature. The goal is to have the region included in the 2023 state budget draft.

He acknowledged that legal requirements for which groups can accept money from which sources quickly gets complicated.

“It's enough to drive you batty,” Konyha said.

'No real power'

Turpin said the Strategic Development Commission was created to look at “who's doing what, who should be doing what and whether any changes should be made” to achieve the region's goals.

“Who is measuring whether we're being successful or not?” he asked.

Although the commission is charged with answering such questions, its ability to follow up is limited.

“I'll tell you, this commission has no real power,” Turpin said. “We don't have any ability to force anyone to do anything, and I don't want to.”

The Strategic Development Commission's plan will be turned over to the state legislature, as required by the statute.

Turpin was busy last week soliciting $10,000 donations from 10 of the area's largest employers to fund the hiring of TIP Strategies, a Texas-based consulting firm the commission wants to hire for $100,000 to guide its work.

No additional costs are anticipated. The commission's members are volunteers, and the Regional Chamber is providing staff support.

Konyha imagines the plan will include projects that “would be transformational on a regional basis.”

“They could be virtually anything,” he said. “I don't see them being things like parks. To me, that's not transformational.”

Projects that might qualify, Konyha said, include a regional walking and biking trails network, Fort Wayne riverfront development and renovation of a small town's downtown.

So-called quality-of-place projects aren't the only things that could be included. Transformational projects could come in the form of extended sewer or gas lines or early childhood care, he said.

“It could be all kinds of things,” Konyha added.

Turpin is optimistic the commission will draft a map that will guide existing northeast Indiana organizations to success.

“I do think it will be a game changer for us,” he said, “a piece of the puzzle we don't have.”

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