COLUMBIA CITY — Partnerships between local and regional entities are benefitting Whitley County and northeast Indiana, separating the area as an example for the rest of the state to follow.
Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership Director John Sampson attended a Columbia City Common Council meeting last month to update city officials on the Partnership’s progress.
The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is built on its code of ethics — where counties not only help themselves, but others as well.
“We’re all working together,” Whitley County Economic Development Corp. President Jon Myers said.
As recently as 10-12 years ago, Whitley County, as others, would try to “poach” talented employees from surrounding counties.
“There’s none of that anymore,” Myers said.
Government officials are not only working together within the county, but also with other counties.
“We need to work as a region and work together,” Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel said.
Daniel is part of the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus, which meets regularly to discuss legislative goals to enhance the region, among other topics.
A mayor from central Indiana attended a recent northeast Indiana caucus meeting, looking to pick up tips on the cooperation and communication of the region.
“They don’t collaborate as we do. We’re a model to the state and other regions,” Daniel said.
Sampson concurred, attributing the success to collaboration.
“The work of this region, not just the Partnership, but together as elected officials — this region has distinguished itself,” Sampson said. “We’re the largest and most collaborative in the state.”
The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership was awarded $42 million in Regional Cities funds, which has been strategically utilized in 10 of the 11 counties in the partnership, including Columbia City.
The Partnership awarded Columbia City $844,079 toward the Russel & Evelyn Fahl Aquatics Center — funding a portion of the project. The state’s redevelopment money was only awarded if enough private and local funds could be raised. In total, the 11-county region saw $256 million in projects, with $148 million in private funding —about 60 percent.
“We’re seeing private sector investments like never before,” Sampson said. “Money from Regional Cities was only a part of what it took to get everything done.”
Most of those projects were for quality of life, such as the aquatics center — a way to attract new residents to the area.
“Making quality of life investments, we’re making a difference in people choosing where to live,” Sampson said. “We want to make sure people are choosing this place — Columbia City, northeast Indiana, as a place to live and make a living. If we don’t have the quality of place they’re looking for, we will lose that.”
When the Regional Partnership was started, Sampson did not expect quality of life to be a focus, rather, infrastructure. However, as local companies grow, employees are sparse, limiting potential.
“Today, the battlefield is on talent,” Sampson said. “There’s nothing but opportunity for growth if we can either attract or develop talent.”
The Whitley County EDC has a full-time talent development director to help with Whitley County’s consistently low unemployment rate — which means many employers are in dire need of employees.
The Regional Partnership has a job postings website, which typically has between 6,000-7,000 job openings posted.
Another effort for talent attraction is working with local veterans who are looking for direction for work after the military, a program called “Hoosier Home Base.” Sampson said 30 percent who leave active military duty have a plan for what they’re going to do, another 30 percent will remain near the base, and the remainder don’t have a plan.
“We value and honor the service of our veterans in our country,” Sampson said. “We want to bring respectable young men and women to work here.”
Many employers find that veterans are trainable and responsive to education.
Northeast Indiana is the only region with a program to help veterans take advantage of opportunities for talent development.
The Partnership’s long-term goal is to raise the overall population from 800,000 to 1 million — and with programs to attract talent such as Hoosier Home Base, it is well on its way.
Also at the City Council meeting:
• Councilwoman Jennifer Romano reported that the ordinance committee is taking several ideas under consideration, such as ordinances for grass clippings in the street, new guidelines for peddlers and changes to the dangerous dogs ordinance.
• The city held its budget hearing in preparation for an Oct. 23 approval. No one from the public spoke during the hearing.
• The council approved the first reading of a sewer maintenance surcharge fee for Steel Dynamics Inc., which will utilize the city’s wastewater treatment facility. The fee is for SDI only, based on the amount of discharge SDI will put into the sewer lines. “This way we can make sure we’re maintaining the sewer line and also ensure the one that’s using it is the one that’s paying for it,” Mayor Daniel said.
• The city is in early stages of planning for the trail extension to the new Columbia City High School location. In the construction process, part of the trail was already completed, surprising city officials. “It was a bit of a surprise for us,” Daniel said. “We didn’t know anything about it.” As part of an agreement between Whitley County Consolidated Schools and the city, WCCS is donating the currently CCHS property to the city to be used as park space, and the city is to pave a trail to the new high school, which is located south of the city on State Road 9.
• City attorney Marcia McNagny is working to construct an ordinance to make Arrowhead Court one-way parking. “I met with about half of the residents and they are in favor of it,” said Councilman Dan Weigold.