When the facts are reviewed, including data sets, census statistics, FDA publications, USDA reports, interviews, and surveys, the possibility of a Food Innovation Center for Northeast Indiana, specifically one proposed in Bluffton, Indiana, is clearly needed in the region for continued economic growth.
There is little doubt the food-shed economy in Northeast Indiana continues to grow and mature, with close examination of successes throughout the 11-county area providing the data to support a regionally-focused effort. In Northeast Indiana, access to virtually unlimited natural resources, coupled with the innovative nature of Hoosiers, moves the food economy to a leading position in a successful Northeast Indiana economic strategy.
Under the leadership of several of the Northeast Indiana Economic Development Directors, a strategic plan is being developed that will map the future of the entire food supply chain. Although resources and desire are unlimited, the current effort is uncoordinated and, as a result, experiencing limited success. Numerous well-intentioned groups are digging deep to improve the food economy, yet the reality is that only a strategic, synchronized approach will result in yields exceeding any previous level.
And the State of Indiana has now entered into this exciting field by awarding Northeast Indiana with a “Regional Cities” grant of $42 million. This quality of place initiative will be a game changer in many areas, with the proposed Food Innovation Center being one of the beneficiaries of this program. By coupling local and federal building funds with matching monies from Regional Cities, the Bluffton Food Innovation Center can be a major transforming factor in growing the Indiana food economy.
Innovators and entrepreneurs will have a low-cost and well-fertilized environment to develop new and exciting food products for regional, state, and national distribution. By cultivating this seed, studies have proven financial benefits to the region can run in the millions of dollars of retained and imported funds currently being exported to other states, and other countries. In Indiana alone, over two-thirds of the food consumed in the state originates outside of our Hoosier community. Even a minimal change in this exchange of funds can transform Hoosier agriculture.
The Bluffton Food Innovation Center in Northeast Indiana is a key component in growing the food economy in Northeast Indiana, and the Regional Cities initiative can play a decisive role in the budding Indiana food economy.
Chad Kline is Executive Director of Wells County Economic Development.
Former Wells County Economic Development Executive Director Tim Ehlerding contributed to this article.