By Joe Carley, director for economic development, Indiana University
One of the most interesting parts of working in economic development is observing community conversations about growth.
Because the subject can be inflammatory, many communities struggle to adopt a clear approach to growth. Opposing sides may disagree about whether growth is the cause or the solution to whatever topic they are trying to address — e.g., housing, traffic, workforce. Too often, statistical evidence that could help ground the conversation is pushed to the side or ignored.
Within that context, it’s particularly interesting to see a community develop a strong consensus around the need for growth — and then coalesce to take action. This is the case in Fort Wayne and the surrounding northeast Indiana region, which boldly titled its application for the Indiana Regional Cities program “The Road to One Million.” This references the goal of raising the regional population to 1 million residents from the 789,015 recorded in 2015. The plan highlights the area’s aging workforce and targets goals for talent development, attraction and retention.
I recently visited Fort Wayne with Tony Armstrong and Jason Whitney of the IU Research and Technology Corp. On a frigid January day, we wanted to see how the city and the region are translating this consensus into action. We found several established and emerging economic development assets that will no doubt help the region make progress toward achieving the ambitious goal.
Our first stop was to the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, a large, full-service incubator and entrepreneurial community. The NICC boasts impressive facilities and an extensive network of partners and advisors to help advance northeast Indiana startups. This type of facility can play an important role in getting early-stage startups through some of the most difficult phases in their path to viability.
The next stop was the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation, a nearly 82,000-square-foot-facility focused on translational research, clinical trials and innovative medical education. There we met with Mike Mirro, chair of the IU Board of Trustees, physician and medical administrator, who described how the Mirro Center is driving new economic opportunities through health care innovation. As Indiana’s second largest city, and a major regional healthcare hub, Fort Wayne has an excellent opportunity to leverage health innovation for economic growth.
Our day continued with a tour of downtown. It had several new and in-progress construction projects, and it is clear that it’s truly becoming a regional destination. Northeast Indiana leadership has also taken the enviable step of housing a number of regional economic development, workforce development, entrepreneurship and university-related offices together in one building downtown to enhance coordination.
The last stop on the tour was Electric Works, the massive — 1.2 million square feet — former General Electric factory campus, which will be redeveloped as an amenity-rich mixed-use site. As we walked around, it was clear that many of the buildings have the potential to be converted into spectacular loft, office, food and entertainment spaces. The developers plan to use these types of amenities to drive a significant entrepreneurship and innovation agenda at the site, and they have already hired their first employee to plan this component of the development. This is truly a project to watch.
Fort Wayne has achieved an impressive level of alignment and momentum around addressing the region’s need to grow, and in doing so has created an interesting model for other communities struggling with the topic of growth. As my colleagues in the IU Office of the Vice President for Engagement and I continue to travel to communities throughout the state, we hope to find even more models for how to build a stronger Indiana economy.