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The M2020 initiative

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership empowers millennials to change the story of Northeast Indiana

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Sociologists studying that demographic of young Americans sometimes called the millennials might not be too far off base to label a portion of that group the Richard Florida Generation.

Ten years ago, sociologist and economist Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, a hugely influential and award-winning book that urged communities to focus on attracting and retaining “talent” as a means to robust economic development.

By talent, Florida meant something he called the “creative class” — entrepreneurial types, technology workers, scientists, artists, and “creative thinkers” in all fields. In general, the “creative class” was tech savvy, dynamic, community-minded, and educated. Communities that boasted a high concentration of such people, the argument went, showed a higher level of economic development — more businesses, more capital, etc.

To summarize: tax breaks and new sports arenas are all well and good, but no company or organization is going to invest in an area that doesn’t have the work force they need.

Florida has expanded on his ideas in several books and articles since then, and though his theories have plenty of critics, aspects of those theories have provided a foundation and a language for pretty much every regional development initiative in virtually every community across the country.

Residents of Northeast Indiana need look no further than their own TV screens for an example. Those “Talent Made Here” spots featuring a safety-goggled Curtis Shaw are part of a larger campaign by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership to boost the profile of our region and “sell it to the world.”

To backtrack a bit, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is, in the words of their official description, an economic development team serving as a single point of contact to businesses interested in locating to the 10-county region. Since its founding in 2006, the NEIRP has been active in examining what potential businesses and organizations look for in a region, and working towards making those things happen in Northeast Indiana.

What they are probably best known for is the Vision2020 initiative, which lays out the mission and establishes guidelines for the organization. It identifies “Five Pillars” — or focus areas — that could produce the most significant economic impact on the region: 21st Century Talent; a Competitive Business Climate; Entrepreneurship; Infrastructure; and Quality of Life.

Now, in addition to its other efforts, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is turning its attention towards millennials with the M2020 initiative and the Spark Tank event happening on Friday, July 27.

For the purposes of the M2020 initiative, millennials comprise ages 15 – 25, and the focus is on getting these younger people involved in the community. It’s all a part of developing, attracting, and retaining talent. “Everything kind of weaves through that notion of talent,” explains Courtney Tritch, Director of Marketing for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. “Talent overrides all the Five Pillars. If we don’t have the talent, we’re not going to be able to get businesses here.”

Erica Hahn, the NEIRP’s Vision 2020 project coordinator, describes the M2020 as an extension of the Vision 2020 initiative. During a summit in 2010, as Vision 2020 was being put together, they realized there was only a 5 – 8% participation rate among millennials. “That’s when we realized that millennials needed to be more involved in the visioning process,” she says.

“If we’re talking about building infrastructure for our businesses and maintaining a high quality of life, that 15 – 25 demo is really the group that’s going to be contributing to it,” adds Tori Rowe, Millennial 2020 coordinator. “You’re talking about the people just entering the workforce, the people who are going to sustain V2020 so it’s not just something happening in the next couple years or so, but for long-term regional economic development.”

There are three components to the M2020 initiative. Earlier this year, M2020 began distributing a survey to millennials in the region (it’s also available online), asking how they might shape the region's future and what would keep them here. “The reason we are really pushing the survey as hard as we could is we’re trying to facilitate that millennial engagement,” Rowe says. “We wanted to identify the region’s greatest challenges and assets from a millennial perspective, and in that sense, we really got a line of hard data.” The results of the survey will be unveiled at the Spark Tank event happening on July 27 (more on that below).

Also earlier this year, the organization launched the Millennial Leaders Alliance (MLA). Rowe explains that this is a leadership body comprised of two or three millennials and a regional leader who sort of serves as a mentor.

So far, the initiative seems to have sparked the level of interest that organizers had hoped for. Paige Cole, a 21-year-old Project Coordinator at Parkview Community Health, is part of the Allen County MLA group. “I became involved because I saw an opportunity to make change,” she says. “There is a strong demand for engagement opportunities throughout Northeast Indiana, and I felt that I could take action and turn this idea into a reality. My hope is that millennials will want to live, work, and play here.”

But while the survey and the MLA have sort of laid the foundation over the last few months, it’s the Spark Tank event on July 27 that might be seen as the M2020 initiative’s big public kick-off. It’s a free, hands-on seminar where millennials from across the region can go step-by-step through the entire process of generating an idea, putting together a plan, and pitching the idea to a panel of regional leaders for the opportunity to win $500 in seed money.

“Most of the ideas are going to be shared or generated at the event during our brainstorming session in the morning,” says Tori Rowe. “But the way we have it set up is that the regional leaders will have a chance to work closely with the millennials, not leading the projects, but serving as consultants, simply saying ‘this is a great idea for this business plan or community project or whatever. These are the steps you need to take’.”

Spark Tank’s keynote speaker is Gary Hoover, the Indiana native who started the Bookstop chain, later selling it to Barnes & Nobles, and founded hoovers.com, a site that provides data and profiles on different businesses.

“Hopefully, this will provide a great opportunity for millennials to network together and with regional leaders, build those contacts and start to create that ‘I can be a part of this’ sentiment for changing the story of Northeast Indiana,” says Courtney Tritch.

Matt Kelley, owner of One Lucky Guitar marketing and design, serves as the regional leader for the Allen County MLA. Though he is not part of the Spark Tank panel, he is planning to attend and see what ideas come out of it, adding that he hopes that any millennials thinking of attending aren’t intimidated. “I can see that being a challenge to some 18 year old out there,” he says. “I would have been intimidated. And so I would encourage interested folks to not get too worried that you need to come in with the idea for an electric car that can go more than 150 miles, or create the next Facebook or iPad or whatever. Just attend, hear other ideas, and get inspired and get involved. The greatest opportunity is to get inspired and to network and make connections that will play out in the months and years to come.”

Kelley says he became an MLA leader because he saw the M2020 initiative as a real, concerted effort to give a younger generation a voice. “One of the things you hear is how much Gen Y wants to be heard—they want to be at the table and be able to make a difference,” says Kelley. “I think it says a lot about Northeast Indiana that our economic development folks are totally in to this idea—going so far as to start the Millennial 2020 program (steered by on-staff millennials), create the MLA with folks who want to be involved, and then put together a free, open-to-everyone seminar with an interactive program and renowned keynote speaker.”

Lauren Zuber, a 25-year-old account coordinator at Asher Agency who is part of the Allen County MLA, says she thrilled to be a part of the initiative and hopes the Spark Tank event inspires other people to get involved. “I've seen a lot of great people move away from this area, and I hear young people every day complain about living here but not know how to find things that interest them,” she says. “A group that wants to work on developing the region with millennials in mind is a great idea. This needs to be an area young people can see themselves growing with. There needs to be someone to pass the baton to. M2020 is working towards that.”

For her part, Zuber’s involvement with the Allen County MLA and the M2020 initiative has opened her eyes to what’s available in Northeast Indiana. “I've really seen the lack of connectivity between the ten counties in the northeast Indiana region. Each county has great assets, but so few people know about them outside their immediate area. There are gems tucked around this region and I'm talking about geography, architecture, people and companies. We need to be proud, we need to boast a little, and we need to listen to each other.”

Spark Tank

Friday, July 27, 8:30am-6pm

University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center (formerly the Scottish Rite Center), 431 West Berry Street, Fort Wayne, IN 46802

Millennials (approx. ages 15-25) and Regional Leaders

Admission is free. Register online at millennial2020.com/registration

Several prize packages will be given away throughout the day including two sets of Colts preseason tickets. First 100 attendees through the door will receive tickets to the TinCaps game that night.

Like the Millennial 2020 Facebook page for a chance to win a prize at the event.

For more on the M2020 initiative and the Spark Tank event, visit millennial2020.com

For more on the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership — including Vision 2020 and the Talent Initiative, visit neindiana.com

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