Category: Economic Development
The "Nine County Rule" is what they used to call it back in the latter part of the 20th century. Take nine counties with major urban areas out of Indiana and one would have a state with a Gross Domestic Product that resembled a third world nation. Today, much of that has changed - and changed for the better.
Where wealth and economy-changing assets were once siloed and unavailable except for populous areas of Indiana, much of the state has re-organized into multi-county economic partnerships that both share region-building resources and marketing savvy. As we have here in Daviess County, the state increasingly experiences the positive benefits of strategic collaboration between local community foundations and economic development organizations. Ivy Tech, Purdue, Indiana University and Vincennes University, together with others, have established full-scale campuses, satellite operations, online programs, and extension centers throughout the state.
This latter development represents perhaps the strongest critical difference between the Indiana of old and the forward-looking 21st century Indiana. While the state enjoyed a truly enviable fiscal position over the past few years, it can only achieve true growth in per capita income and real wealth creation (especially rural wealth creation) through an educational and cultural transformation in the fundamental Hoosier workforce.
Here in rural Daviess County, we see a broad spectrum of new opportunities never before possible. Consider these words: "The West Gate at Crane Technology Park creates a unique opportunity to not only leverage the existing high-technology work already being done at [NSWC] Crane, but also to serve as a catalyst for future growth within the region." Those words are not recent. They were said nearly seven years ago by the first Indiana Secretary of Commerce, Pat Miller, just before the first ground-breaking in the WestGate tech park (then little more than a corn field) that was conducted by Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman.
Since then, more than $75 million in public and private investments have been poured into the WestGate tech park, creating more than 400 new high impact high-wage jobs, attracting more than 10 Fortune 500-level commercial defense companies, and developing a quarter of a million square feet in all new office and high-tech construction. When I-69 opens later this year with an exit ramp near the northwest corner of the park and the new $10 million Battery Innovation Center (BIC) opens, a whole new era of growth will likely ensue in the region.
But this much-anticipated exciting growth can only occur if our regional workforce matches the high-tech opportunities that will be created. With the $2 billion NAVSEA Naval Surface Warfare Center driving high-impact employment past the 6,000 mark, it’s no wonder that Martin County (where the 100-square-mile military facility sits) represents one of the highest concentration of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs in the nation.
Our region, our county - just like the rest of the state, and in particular the rural areas of Indiana - must look to improving the quality of our workforce in almost every way. Once we did not have the resources to do this effectively. Today is a different story.
In commercial real estate sales, the main slogan for the three most important attraction values used to be "location, location, location." That referred of course to the physical attractiveness and viability of a place or location. Today, as professionals in both commercial real estate and economic development will tell you, the three most attractive elements that are considered are: "workforce, workforce, location."
When a company is considering expanding or relocating somewhere, two of the main expected outcomes from an expansion are increased productivity and as a result, increased profitability. There are three basic ways to achieve higher productivity: development and deployment of new technologies, increased capital investments, and effective workforce education and training.
Here in Daviess County we have made great strides in education with an award-winning New Tech high school at North Daviess, and other high-performing schools - both public and private - in other parts of the county. As these teenagers move on to college and adulthood, they increasingly now have high-paying jobs they can potentially return to as a result of the WestGate and other company expansion. We can, in effect, reverse the brain drain of our best and brightest.
But we can't let up. As the Rand Corporation and other research shows, the Boomer generation is rapidly reaching retirement age and creating an institutional knowledge vacuum. Will we have trained and seasoned replacements ready to step into current jobs, or to fill new ones created through expansion? Will we be able to deliver improved productivity during the next generation?
We will if we stay focused on encouraging Hoosiers to not only finish school, but to begin and stay in life-long patterns of learning and improvement. To do so will reward everyone.
We have had early success, as evidenced in Daviess County and elsewhere in Indiana. But to achieve real sustainable growth, we must commit to real transformation in our workforce. We must change our culture to enthusiastically embrace life-long learning. That is our task, our goal, and our achievable future.
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