COLUMBIA CITY — Whitley County is laying out the welcome mat for 45 families from Puerto Rico, local officials said today.

The workers are transferring from a medical device facility in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, that was damaged by Hurricane Maria, to a facility in Warsaw. Due to a housing shortage in Warsaw, the families will (and have already begun to) locate in Whitley County, officials said.

Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel called the news “a huge win” for Whitley County.

“They are huge benefits for us,” he said. “Not only population growth but from an economic development perspective.”

Daniel said local officials learned about the incoming families last week. Some of the families have already started to arrive. The rest will arrive in the next few weeks.

For a community of 9,000, welcoming a potential influx of 100 to 200 individuals in a matter of weeks will present challenges, including language services.

“At the end of the day, we’re preparing for challenges, but with those challenges come tremendous opportunity,” Daniel said.


Resources for new residents

Local officials said they don’t yet know the newcomers’ level of English proficiency, but some of the individuals speak English fluently.

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Spanish and English are both official languages in Puerto Rico with Spanish being dominant. Fewer than 20 percent of Puerto Ricans speak English fluently, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. They can travel, live and work in the country without needing a visa or passport. It’s important that local residents understand this, said Jennifer Zartman Romano, executive director of the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce. She is coordinating efforts to welcome the families to the community.

“I think it’s important to let people know that they’re transferring employees – they’re existing, skilled workers coming here. They’re American citizens,” she said.

Daniel is confident Whitley County can accommodate the housing needs of the newcomers with apartments and other housing. Three or four housing additions are in the process of expanding, he added.

Representatives from the chamber, Whitley County Economic Development Corp., Parkview Whitley Hospital, schools and public safety met Wednesday morning to brainstorm ways to address issues that might arise from the intake process.

Romano already has a lengthy project list that includes making materials available in Spanish, identifying fluent Spanish speakers in the community and planning a resource fair to connect families to services and businesses.

She wants to make sure the transplants feel at home.

“We’re not just preparing for the [employee] who is coming here – we’re thinking about what the children will be interested in, so we’re preparing materials for the parks department so that they can get signed up for little league this summer,” she said.


A win for economic development

A job fair is also in the works for the employees’ spouses and other family members who might be looking for employment.

Jon Myers, president of the Whitley County EDC, said employers are excited about the news of potential employees moving to the community.

Myers is excited for the opportunity it will bring to Whitley County’s low, 2.5 percent unemployement rate. When unemployment gets down around 3 or 4 percent, it becomes a strain on the employer, Myers said. Additionally, he is excited to hear that many of the individuals are bringing skills that are highly desired by local employers. The business community is cheering about this, he said.

Daniel said the influx will help Columbia City get closer to its population goal of 10,000. When a community crosses that threshold, it gets a lot more looks from businesses, he said.

At the press conference, the local officials said that they weren’t sure if they families would stay in Whitley County permanently. At the very least, the move will be long-term because they know of an individual who has signed a 15-month lease. The hope is for them to stay, Daniel said.

“Very rarely do you have a small community, like ours, have this opportunity where multiple families – 45 families – end up coming to our community. We want to make sure that they can plant roots here,” he said.

Daniel, Romano and Myers said they weren’t at liberty to name the biomedical firm. However, Warsaw-based medical device manufacturer Zimmer Biomet has a manufacturing facility in Guaynabo, the city the families are transferring from.

In October, Zimmer Biomet issued a statement giving an update on its manufacturing facilities in Guaynabo and Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The facilities sustained “relatively minor damage from the storm.” At that time, manufacturing operations at both plants had been partially restored and were expected to gradually ramp up over the next weeks as central power was brought back online in both communities.

IN|Whitley County reached out to Zimmer Biomet to confirm that their workers are the ones transferring to Warsaw, but the company has not yet returned the phone call.