Chamber, EDC continues to market Wells County
June 20, 2012
The staff members at the Wells County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation continue to market Wells County and promote the local business community in heir office in the Arts, Commerce and Visitors Centre. From left, Diane Johnson, Megan Morrison, and seated, executive directorof the chamber Suzanne Huffman.
By MARK MILLER
Wells County’s rather unique approach to economic development has eased the difficulty created when the county’s full-time economic development director resigned.
The transition period between Mike Row’s resignation and the time a new director is hired has been handled rather seamlessly. The primary reason for that is the assistance structure in place between the Wells County Economic Development Corporation and the Wells County Chamber of Commerce.
The EDC and the chamber share office space and support staff. It’s a “one-stop shop” where business prospects can get questions answered and general assistance in locating their business in Wells County or expanding their business.
Yet, as chamber executive director Suzanne Huffman is quick to point out, the two entities are, at the same time, operated separately with two budgets and two separate financial books.
The EDC is funded by government contributions and private donations, while the chamber is supported soley by the business community in the form of memebership dues and fund-raising events.
“It is understandable that some may get confused about that,” Huffman says, “but it’s important to know that none of the government funds get mixed in with chamber activities. We are extremely careful about that.”
While the combination of the two entities in one office has distinct advantages when it comes to working with business prospects, those advantages are magnified during an interim process when there is no economic development director.
Row, who had served in that post for five years, accepted a position as the chief operating officer of Bluffton’s Edge Manufacturing Co. in March. A search committee is currently in the midst of naming his replacement, but in the interim, the staff in the office on the west side of the Arts Commerce & Visitors Centre have made adjustments to keep the bases covered.
“When you essentially have a one-man band, you struggle to get things covered,” says Brent Hiday, who has been leading the effort to hire a new economic development director in his role as this year’s chamber president. “But Diane Johnson was in a perfect position to fill in.”
Johnson wears two hats in her job at 114 W. Water St. She has been the project manager for the EDC and also serves as the financial manager for the chamber for the past year, after the chamber and EDC reorganized their staffs to accommodate added responsbilities and the growing demands of competing for jobs in the economic development field.
“We’re in a much better position with Diane having that year of experience,” Huffman says.
She is referring to the last time there was an opening for an ED director in 2006, at which time Huffman took on the bulk of the the ED responsibilities while still managing the chamber’s affairs.
“(Diane) is familiar with tax abatements, and she had been on site visits with Mike,” Huffman says. “And if something comes up, we can all pitch in.”
The staff also has resources available at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, a regional economic development organization of which Wells County is a member. Staffers in Bluffton have been told by other economic development directors in the region, like Rick Sherck in Noble County, that they would be glad to help if needed.
“The other economic development offices in the area have been every helpful,” Johnson says. “They’re just a phone call away.”
“You do end up doing some juggling,” Huffman says. “Because you never know what the next phone call might be or who might walk through the door.”
Part of the reorganization of the chamber staff last year included the hiring of their newest employee, Megan Morrison, as the chamber’s membership manager and as coordinator for the Wells County Leadership Academy.
In addition to overseeing the classes and coordinating the volunteers who make the leadership academy possible, Morrison also manages the chamber’s data bases, helps with chamber events and seminars, and serves as secretary for committee and board meetings.
But all three women can, particularly during the interim period between full time ED direcors, focus on “selling” Wells County to prospective businesses, they emphasize.
“The phone keeps ringing,” Huffman says. “We continue to get inquiries.”
And what are Wells County’s selling points?
“Mike always liked to talk about Wells County’s culture,” Huffman says. “The strong work ethic that exists here, the strong churches and our schools. We continue to talk about that.”
Huffman also lists a number of positive things that can be shared with prospects:
• The Adams Street project will be going out for bids. “This opens up the west side for more economic development and further enhances the Decker Industrial Park area,” Huffman notes.
• Shovel-ready land that is ready for development
• Schools. All three school systems consistently score well in tests and evaluations; the Norwell High School renovation project that was approved by voters; and there is a continuing commitment to embrace technology. “Our county is truly aware of how important education is to economic development,” Huffman says.
• The Chamber of Commerce and county officials are working out the details of a new “project fund” that will be available to assist in infrastructure needs for new entities setting up a business in the county.
• Two local industries — Pretzels, Inc. and Alexin LLC — are experiencing significant growth, demonstrating that the county is “industry-friendly” and has a good workforce.
• A new Manufacturing Committee within the chamber has been started and is focusing on any means to assist existing local industries.
• The chamber, through its Wells County Revitalization arm, donated land to the Town of Ossian for a matching grant to build a fishing pond and nature swale, picnic areas and parking. “This will provide a wonderful place for residents and visitors of Ossian,’ Huffman notes.
• There is a new effort to focus on downtown revitalization in the wake of a visit last year from national consultants, who performed a week-long evaluation and presented a recommended plan of action.
• The local hospital, Bluffton Regional Medical Center, “is growing and continues to provide world-class healthcare right here in our backyard,” Huffman says.
• “We have a great parks department in Ossian,” Huffman continues, “and the Bluffton Parks Department has been nationally recognized and seems to receive awards every year.”
• A nationally recognized city police force in Bluffton.
• Bluffton Mayor Ted Eliis is currently serving as president of the National League of Cities. “This is bringing Bluffton and Wells County a lot of national recognition,” Huffman adds.
The search committee for a new economic development director began formal reviews and interviews in early June and hopes to have a new director on board “as soon as we feasibly can,” Hiday says. The committee consists of the chamber’s executive committee of Hiday, immediate past president Paul Grandlinard, vice-president Rick Johnloz and treasurer Trent Bucher plus EDC representatives David Morrison, Tamra Boucher, Phil Swain and Kevin Woodward, president of the Wells County Commissioners.
“We will likely bring in more community people for the final interviews,” Hiday adds. “That seemed to be beneficial the last time.”