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June 23, 2015

Wells County Economic Development Director Tim Ehlerding stands out side of the 200,000 square foot spec building on Bluffton’s western edge. (Photo by Mark Miller)

Spec building not the only topic Wells County can brag about

By MARK MILLER
While Wells County’s most visible — and most aggressive — effort in economic development during the past year is the completion of the 200,000 square foot “spec” building on Bluffton’s western edge, there have been efforts that are arguably equal to that in an entirely different direction.
“Communities have found that companies want to know about the work force, and what the quality of life is like in any community they are considering,” explained Wells County Economic Development Director Tim Ehlerding.
“Additionally, more people, particularly Millennials, tend to look for a place to live and then find a job, almost the complete opposite of how Baby Boomers and earlier generations did it,” he added.
Hence, there has been a growing focus on quality-of-life initiatives, efforts to attract people to come to the area and live and to retain more of those who grow up here.
 

Regional Cities Initiative
The most visible project that has moved along in the past few months is the Regional Cities Initiative, the result of H.B. 1403 which allocated $84 million into a fund which is the subject of a competition among the state’s nine regions.
On June 3, the Wells County Council approved an ordinance that allows the county to be part of the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority, joining 10 other counties in the new entity that will submit a bid by July 1. Two regions will split that $84 million pot, making $42 million available for regional economic development projects aimed at improving the quality of life in northeast Indiana.
Ehlerding likes the region’s chances. “Unlike most regions in the state, we have a track record of getting along,” he said. “We play in the sandbox well together.”
Ehlerding has previously shared in presentations to county commissioners and council that while there is healthy competition if a company is looking at the region, “We’ve worked well on a number of projects together.”
The RDA’s steering committee, on which Ehlerding serves, has been compiling a list of 50 to 60 projects that are already in process and will be a part of that application. Locally, Ehlerding said, that will include the Food Innovation Center, the Bluffton NOW! initiatives and the work of the Ossian Revitalization group.
The regional approach that the state has structured makes sense, Ehlerding explained.
Each region is built around a core city. In northeast Indiana, that’s Fort Wayne. “You cannot make Fort Wayne and Allen County a better place to work and live unless you also can make Bluffton and Huntington and the surrounding counties a better place to work and live,” he said. “That’s the basic concept.”
Courtney Tritch of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership added, “If a city is amazing but it’s in the middle of a blighted area, that won’t work,” she said. And neither would a strong region work that was anchored by a blighted city. “We have to capitalize on the strengths of both,” she said.
The RDA will have no taxing authority and the county has made no obligations for future funding of projects. The state funding, however, will come largely in the form of matching grants for individual projects.
 

How important is Quality of Life?
While a community’s quality of life is not the first thing a company looks at when they are searching for a new site, it can easily make or break a deal.
“Quality of life is the least important economic development tool until it is the most important,” Ehlerding said.
There are always the basic questions, he continued. Is the infrastructure in place? Is there a qualified and available work force? What’s the cost of doing business, including taxes?
“Once we pass those tests, then they begin looking at what the area will offer,” he said. “I am focused on those first questions, so I am so happy that Bluffton NOW! and the Ossian group are doing what they’re doing.”
Ehlerding mentioned not just the initiatives that Bluffton NOW! has taken on, but that the group is made up of so many younger people. “That’s more exciting than the projects themselves,” he said. He is equally impressed with how much involvement is being demonstrated in Ossian. “They’ll have 30 to 40 people come to the park meetings, and there is a sense that they definitely want to get some things done.
“Ossian has a lot of potential, particularly with its proximity to Fort Wayne,” he said.
Ehlerding is not certain how much of the perceived quality of life in Wells County was a factor in the decision of Haldrup USA to build a 24,000 square foot plant in Ossian, currently under construction. “We heard several comments during the discussions that they felt comfortable here,” he said. “I recall one comment by Mr. Rudinger that ‘This feels like home.’ I think that’s a good thing.”
Quality of life is equally important in existing businesses’ expanding here, Ehlerding added. “Often, the biggest challenge several companies face is attracting engineers and executives to smaller communities,” he said. “It is important that when these candidates take a look at our community, they like what they see.”

Workforce Development
A huge part of attracting new businesses and helping existing businesses expand is having a trained workforce.
To that end, in 2013 Ehlerding partnered with Ivy Tech Community College and Northeast Indiana Works to establish an Industrial Maintenance class. The concept is simple: local industries identify good workers who are ready to advance into needed industrial maintenance positions — they just need the training. Three classes have been completed and a fourth is now being held in Adams County. Ehlerding added that he is already starting to fill a fifth class.
The most recent class completed their training in January and included five students, four from Wells County.
The program is now operated under the auspices of a newly-formed group, which Ehlerding credits with several successful projects and more to come.
The Adams Wells Manufacturing Alliance is a partnership of manufacturers and educators in the two counties, focused on attracting students to careers in manufacturing. One visible result has been establishing two welding labs, one at Bellmont High School in Decatur and one at Bluffton High School. (See story on page 68.)
“These will lead to good-paying jobs right here at home,” Ehlerding noted.”
Additionally, the manufacturers have given high school teachers and counselors “tools to help students identify their interests and match those with local careers,” he explained. “These efforts have actually led to jobs after high school with local companies.”
There are other discussions of expanding the Industrial Maintenance course to include “Six Sigma” processes and other management training. The group is also looking at what they call “teaching externs” in which teachers or counselors would actually work for local manufacturers for short periods in order to get a better feel for the opportunities for students.
Wells County will once again host two summer camps this year for middle and high school students to gain experience in manufacturing and technology.
The “Guitar Hero” camp will offer participants the opportunity to learn design and manufacturing techniques to build a product — in this case, a guitar that will become theirs. This will be the third such camp.
The Robotics camp will mark its second year. Last summer, nine students spent a week “programming life into Legos,” as Ehlerding explained at the time. The students’ final test is to have the robots complete an obstacle course.
Ehlerding would like to add a “health care camp” of some sort to give students interested in a career in that industry. “That’s still in the works,” he said.
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Workforce development and quality of life issues go hand-in hand, Ehlerding believes.
“Everyone can be involved and be a part of improving our quality of life,” he said. “That’s apparent and exciting to watch,” citing the work being done by the groups in Bluffton and Ossian.
“It’s a great day to be in Wells County.” 

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