More than two hundred community leaders from all corners of the region gathered last week in Mishawaka for the unveiling of the first ever regional economic development plan. The plan launch marked the culmination of more than a year of work by hundreds of volunteers seeking to develop a roadmap for regional development over the next seven years.
The plan comes on the heels of the cooperative effort that resulted in St. Joseph, Elkhart, and Marshall Counties receiving a $42 million state grant from the Indiana Regional Cities program. That infusion of state dollars, combined with significant local pubic and private sector dollars will result in more than $700 million of investment in the region. Many of those projects are now underway.
The regional cities award was a little bit of a surprise. When it launched leaders in the region and down State wondered if our region would be able to come together with a collaborative effort that could compete against other Indiana regions. What resulted was a plan that caught the attention of the State and further solidified developing relationships across this region.
Some wondered if once the money was doled out if that regional collaborative spirit would continue or whether communities would go back to doing things the way they always had been done. Leaders wisely decided instead to build upon that collaborative effort that produced a winning regional cities application and next build a regional plan to help guide future efforts.
A steering committee first took a deep dive into the data, forming a better understanding of the assets of our region and how we stacked up against our peers. An overarching goal of raising per capita personal income was developed. From there, five specific focus areas were studied, and a plan was developed with those focus areas in mind.
Those focus areas are Educating a world-class WORKFORCE; Recruiting and retaining great TALENT; Attracting and growing new economy companies in complement to our remarkably strong manufacturing INDUSTRIES; Promoting INCLUSION and sparking opportunities for minorities; Helping ENTREPRENEURS.
Specific measurable goals were developed under each of those focus areas. Those goals address things like reducing income disparity, stopping out migration, improving education attainment levels, growing jobs in higher pay traded cluster industries, and establishing high tech start-ups. Specific actions have been prescribed to help achieve those goals.
Though the regional cities plan originally incorporated only the three Indiana counties, the new regional plan incorporates a broader geography that includes Southwest Lower Michigan and Northern Indiana.
A small group of leaders have been drafted to help guide progress towards those goals. An overall organizational framework has also been put in place to help guide sustainable progress. That group includes broad community representation like elected officials, private sector representatives, chambers of commerce, economic development officials, convention and visitor bureaus, and others.
Now the real work begins. Its critical that leaders across the region don’t just place this plan on a shelf but instead incorporate elements of the new plan into their own programs of work as they work closely with their regional partners on the implementation of this plan.
Places around the country that are thriving are thriving in many cases because of a shared vision by their regional leaders. Our region is experiencing some good progress but this plan, a shared vision for our region, if implemented right, will help our region compete with any in the country.
Jeff Rea is chief executive officer of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce.