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Know your local public/private economic development entities

A primer

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Over the years, the Fort Wayne Reader has done several stories on economic development, and talked to many of the public/private development organizations in the area. And when we publish those stories, we will often hear from readers who say to us — sometimes sheepishly, sometimes angrily, usually confusedly — “you know, I don’t even know what all these organizations do, exactly. What does the NEIRP do? What about the Alliance? I thought the DID was supposed to do that…”

We get confused ourselves sometimes, and we’re betting that for many civic-minded folks not thoroughly immersed in what we’ll call the economic development community, sorting through these organizations can seem like a lot of alphabet soup.

“I think there’s a misconception out there that there are all these economic development organizations getting in each other’s way, doing the same thing” says Mick McCollum, President of the Fort Wayne Allen County Economic Development Alliance. “That just isn’t true. Everyone has their area, and we all work well together.”

And on another level… how many times have you heard someone declare that “they” should do this, that, or the other thing. “They” should bring a Trader Joe’s downtown. “They” should make company X stay in Allen County. “They” should try to bring back more of these kind of jobs…

In the interest of clearing up misconceptions and straightening out the “theys,” we offer as succinct a summary as we can on some prominent local and regional public/private economic development entities.

We decided to focus on what’s considered economic development in its strictest sense — bringing in companies from outside the area and creating jobs (actually, one of the organizations below doesn’t necessarily do that, but many people seem to think it does, so we included it). There are many good organizations in our area that provide services for businesses — the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center; the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce; SCORE, just to name a few — and many of them sometimes work The Alliance or NEIRP in some capacity. But often they work with already established businesses (however small) or aren’t strictly public/private. Anyway, maybe that’s grist for another article…

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership

Ten counties fall under the umbrella of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership (NEIPR), an organization formed in 2006 to, in the words of President John Sampson, “encourage business investment in the region, and market the region from an economic development standpoint.”

“We also work on product development,” Sampson adds. “So, we market, build product, and ensure the region is working together collaboratively, because it gives us a competitive advantage when we do so.”

In case you missed it, the “product” the NEIRP is marketing and developing here is Northeast Indiana. Basically, the NEIRP touts the benefits of Northeast Indiana to any companies — national or international — looking for somewhere to build a facility. “Our business is a relationship business,” Sampson says. “We spend a lot of time building relationships with people we refer to as sight selectors — consultants that advise clients on where to locate — and we also build relationships with companies. If they (the companies) want to do business in the Midwest, we think Indiana is the only answer to that.”

The NEIRP represents10 counties, and Sampson says bringing those counties together gives the region a competitive advantage when it comes to economic development — a concept that’s not always easy to understand. “What routinely impedes economic development efforts is that communities become competitive with their neighbors,” he explains. “They think the battle for economic development is occurring at some political border between one county and another, or the city and the county whatever the demarcation is.”

Sampson continues: “If you step back far enough from the economic development battle, you realize a company does not care what political jurisdiction they’re in as long as the region, the community, works together to establish an environment that allows them to grow together and be successful. So the pitch that we have made — and I believe that this region firmly embraces — is that it matters less where the business is located, it matters more that they’re located here in the region, putting people to work and creating capitol investment inside the borders of our region.”

The NEIRP is also behind the Vision 2020 initiative, an essential part of “product development” to make the region more attractive to potential investors. To summarize, Vision 2020 focuses on five pillars — a talented workforce; a competitive business climate; infrastructure; entrepreneurship; and quality of life — to set goals for the region and articulate what the region has to offer. “It’s typically a business case we’re trying to make,” Sampson says. “But we also acknowledge there’s a subjective piece of this that goes to quality of life, and we have to be able to speak to that too.”

Sampson explains that the NEIRP’s funding comes from a combination of private and public sources — 80 - 85% privates sources and foundations and 15 – 20% public. “All the private industries are effected when the economy doesn’t grow. Utilities are big investors. City and the county are big investors because we market the region on their behalf.”

For more on the NEIRP and the Vision 2020 initiative, go to Neindiana.com

The Fort Wayne/Allen County Economic Development Alliance

If a big part of the NEIRP’s mission is to demonstrate why a potential investor should choose Northeast Indiana, some of the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of setting up shop falls to a Local Economic Development Organization (LEDO). Their responsibility is to provide the product, whether that means shovel-ready sites or whatever else an investor requires.

Our LEDO is the Fort Wayne/Allen County Economic Development Alliance, or just The Alliance. Getting a grip on all the Alliance is involved in is somewhat daunting, but Mick McCollum, President of the Alliance, says there are three basic parts — attraction, retention, and expansion.

“The busiest part is expansion,” McCollum says. “Basically, helping companies that are already here if they want to expand their facilities, but new equipment, etc. We try to do anything we can to make it easier for them, and that induces everything from process to opportunities for incentives, like training grants.”

So, all those economic development tools you read about — shovel ready sites; tax abatements and other incentives; workforce and infrastructure, etc. — usually falls to The Alliance, who work with whatever appropriate governmental entities to ensure those things are available.

They’re also tasked with marshalling all those resources when a company decides it might leave the area. “The most common thing we see is a company that has a facility here, and one somewhere else, and to save money they want to combine the two operations,” says McCollum. “We want to make sure consolidation occurs here rather than somewhere else.”

John Sampson at the NEIRP stressed the importance of the 10 counties in Northeast Indiana working together rather than jealously guarding county borders as happened in the past. But it certainly sounds like there must be some competition between areas to snag companies coming in from outside.

McCollum says that’s not really the case. He explains that once a company decides to set up in our part of Indiana, they usually know the amenities they’re looking for, and the workforce they need. “We’ve found that usually, companies that would be interested in coming to Allen County wouldn’t be interested in going to, say, Huntertown,” McCollum says. “They’re looking for different things. If I heard a company was considering going to Garret, for example, I wouldn’t get on the phone and try to pitch Fort Wayne. That would be stealing each other’s leads. By the same token, if there’s a company who calls us and calls somewhere else, and wants two proposals, probably both of us would do that.”

But that doesn’t happen much. “It’s not very often you find someone who wants to be in Fort Wayne say ‘let’s look at Auburn as well,’ probably because of the labor force,” McCollum continues. “At the end of the day, there are all kinds of things that companies might have on their checklist. If they’re looking in Indiana, usually #1 on their list is going to be the availability of labor.”

Funding for The Alliance comes from the County, the City, and the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce.

For more on The Fort Wayne/Allen County Economic Development Alliance, visit the allianceonline.com

The Downtown Improvement District

The Downtown Improvement District is not an economic development entity in the same way that The Alliance or the NEIRP are, in that it’s not really about job creation. “Community development” is probably a more accurate description of what the DID does. However, we’ve heard it referred to as such so often that we think it warrants inclusion here. In fact, due to the DID’s high public profile, we’d make the case for it being one of the most widely misunderstood entities in the area — though granted, we’re basing that not on any scientific polling we’ve conducted, but on the number of times we’ve heard someone tell us that “the Downtown Improvement District should bring a Trader Joe’s downtown.”

The DID isn’t necessarily in the business of “bringing” a business like Trader Joe’s to downtown Fort Wayne — if Trader Joe’s or someone like them decided to come here, they’d probably talk to The Alliance first — but they do help make downtown an hospitable environment for a business to set up shop, whether it’s a Trader Joe’s or a locally owned business.

The Downtown Improvement District is partially funded by its “members” — the businesses in the 91 blocks that encompass the DID are assessed a total of $300,000. “In that location, over 50% of the real estate is owned by the public sector,” says Bill Brown, President of the Downtown Improvement District. “So between the City and County, they contribute about a couple hundred thousand dollars to that pot, plus about $50,000 worth of sponsorships and things like that.”

And if you’re a DID assessee, what do you get in return? “We’re sort of stewards of the built environment downtown,” Brown says. “There’s a big ‘clean and green’ element to what we do, keeping things neat and clean.”

There’s also an event element. As many people are aware, the DID is responsible for organizing or helping organize events downtown, the idea being that it builds an image of downtown as an active destination area and potentially draws more customers to a business.

As Brown sees it, the DID’s most important role is that of an advocate and a facilitator. If you were, say, looking to set up an office downtown, the DID wouldn’t rent you space, but they could tell you who to talk to to find that space. “If they have questions about how to get started, we can tell them where to go to make certain things happen,” Brown says.

But here where things might get a little confusing, and also where the DID could fit into economic development category. Both the Downtown Improvement District and The Alliance are involved with the Downtown Development Trust. “That’s a private not-for-profit 501 c 3 that operates sort of like a ‘land bank’,” says Brown. “The goal is to try to get properties into a prescriptive use.”

Basically, the Downtown Development Trust buys a vacant property, and sells it to a developer who promises to develop the property for a specific purpose. About a year ago, the Trust made news with its first purchase — the former Instant Copy store on West Wayne, across from the library. The idea is to sell that space to a developer who has a specific use for it, like a grocery store.

The Trust board is made up of three “DID people,” three “Alliance people,” and three others selected by the original six. “The intent being: let’s get a good mix of folks who understand the outcomes we’re trying to create,” Brown says. “Some folks say ‘well, why don’t you let the private sector do it all?’ But I think you’ve got to be a little more prescriptive in your approach.”

For more on the Downtown Improvement District, visit downtownfortwayne.com

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