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Plan Aims To Increase Growth In Southwest Central Indiana

69 South sign

[photo 1]

Southwest Central Indiana is facing significant challenges that are prohibiting economic growth in the region.

That’s according to a recently released report that analyzes 11 counties: Crawford, Daviess, Dubious, Green, Lawrence, Martin, Orange, Washington, Monroe, Owen and Brown.

It was unveiled in French Lick in late November.

Now a steering committee is tasked with figuring out how to make all of the recommendations outlined in the strategic plan happen.

The report identifies five obstacles the region must overcome to increase prosperity.

Little Development Along I-69

According to the study done by Battelle Consulting, one of the five factors holding back growth in Southwest Central Indiana is the fact that communities haven't taken advantage of development opportunities along the I-69 corridor.

In order for businesses to move in, the land needs to be shovel-ready.

That’s a challenge many communities are trying to work through after former Gov. Mitch Daniels expedited construction of I-69.

"A lot of communities and the politicians in those communities don’t really address an issue until it’s a very visible need that they have," says Ron Arnold, Daviess County Economic Development Director. "And, when you were talking about Governor Daniels saying that road’s going to be open from Evansville to Crane in two years, it takes a long time for infrastructure and resource development to get the money in place to do the things you need to do. So, I’d say those communities are scrambling."

The small city of Washington, Ind. is one of the few that isn't scrambling.

I-69 runs through Washington – for the first time paving a direct route that connects the community south to Evansville and eventually north to Indianapolis.  

[photo 2]

Mayor Joe Wellman says years ago the county and city saw the opportunity I-69 presented and decided to capitalize on it.

Officials  annexed 1,200 acres near the interstate so they could provide infrastructure and quality-of-life amenities that businesses are looking for.

And, they recently completed a new water tower that will provide enough volume and pressure for anyone wishing to move in along the newly developed corridor.

"We’re seeing some development on U.S. 50, which is our main artery to I-69," Wellman says. "Things like MacAllister Machinery has put a big expansion in place that will end up with an additional employment of about 60 people."

Wellman says I-69 is already bringing more traffic and business into town. He expects that to increase once the final phase of the project are complete.

[pullquote]Everybody knew it was going to be great. But, I think now that it's here, it's created a lot of optimism and good feeling.

-Joe Wellman, Washington Mayor[/pullquote]

"Everybody knew it was going to be great," he says. "But I think now that it’s here, it’s created a lot of optimism and good feeling."

The Southwest Central Indiana Strategic Plan suggests creating a Strategic Opportunity Fund to help other communities with development along I-69. The fund would be made up of a government, industry and philanthropic money.

Not Enough Skilled Workers

A second factor prohibiting growth in the region is a shortage of skilled workers.

CEO and President of Radius Indiana Becky Skillman visited the eleven counties included in the study and heard the same complaint over and over – workers don’t have the training employers are looking for.

[pullquote]All the company cares about is workforce, workforce, workforce.

-Becky Skillman, CEO of Radius Indiana[/pullquote]

"Site selectors that advise business everyday on where to locate will tell you that state incentives, local incentives are fine, we’ll take it," Skillman says. "But, all the company cares about is workforce, workforce, workforce. And, if you don’t have that trained workforce in place and you can’t prove those numbers, then the next best thing is to show them how you’re working to get into that position."

According to the report, educational attainment in the region is below the state average, with at least half of the adult population having a high school diploma or less in 10 of the 11 counties.

Employers also expressed concerns over the lack of relevant career and technical skills being taught in K-12 schools. They said what's being taught in the classroom often doesn't line up with their employment needs.

The strategic plan outlines a number of ways to address the issue.

[photo 3]

Among them, increasing the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees available at Indiana University – a goal the school is already working toward.

"We’re in the beginning stages of establishing what we hope will be a very vibrant school of engineering that draws upon existing strengths at IU, particularly our School of Informatics and Computing, our capabilities in networking and network science," says Vice President for Engagement Bill Stephan.

The plan also identifies the need to get students involved in STEM fields in elementary and middle school.

And it suggests there should be a shift in the classroom that gives students more exposure to skills training that aligns with modern jobs.

"It’s very important for educators and employers to collaborate," says Skillman. "We see that we need more professional development for our school counselors, we certainly need more experiential learning opportunities for our students. And, we need more technical programs that actually line up with the needs of the major employers in our region."

Lack Of An Entrepreneurial Culture

The third challenge identified in the strategic plan is the lack of a sufficient entrepreneurial environment.

The study found Southwest Central Indiana doesn't have as many business start-ups as other regions and has limited investment of risk capital.

Wellman said Washington has several programs in place already to help foster an entrepreneurial spirit among young people in the community.

"We have several projects going on in our high school that we think will help," he says. "We have a CEO class to teach young people about what it means to be in business."

They also offer a  new Leadership Daviess County program for people of all ages.

The strategic plan calls for creating 'entrepreneurial hubs' that focus on cluster industries that are innovative or technology-based to help accelerate the rate of commercialization in the region.

More Collaboration Needed Between NSWC Crane And IU

While NSWC Crane and Indiana University do collaborate, the report found their relationship is limited.

That may partly be due to organizational policies and procedures, but the study says the region would benefit from a more robust relationship between the two research institutions.

[photo 4]

"What the report proposes, and I think it’s a very sound recommendation, is that a center be created, kind of an applied research center, where you have some dedicated staff with some expertise who can really work both sides of that equation," Stephan said. "They would develop relationships or have relationships both at IU and NSWC Crane. They would have the insights and experience to know where there could be some opportunities of mutual interest."

The report also encourages seeking federal funds and designations that create centers, institutes and major programs in the region.

Absence Of Sense Of Regionalism

The final—and perhaps most crucial—challenge the eleven counties face is the lack of a sense of regionalism.

While organizations throughout Southwest Central Indiana are working to market the region, their efforts aren't coordinated. And, there is a lack of trust among some communities in the region, who see themselves as competing for jobs and money.

"I will be the first to admit that regionalism is not easy," Skillman said. "We have natural competitiveness built in, whether that be from traditions in high school sports or competitiveness in economic development projects and landing new companies. And, yet, we’re told we’re supposed to think alike and think as one to form regional initiatives. And, it’s not always easy."

But the steering committee is hoping to change that. They are working to come up for a brand and structure for the region.

And they want to create a rural development center of excellence at IU, which would focus on rural issues. Experts could weigh in on the problems and help figure out the best ways to solve them.

"When you consider the unique needs and challenges that exist within this region – this is a large region, eleven counties, unfortunately with some fairly significant pockets of poverty," Stephan said. "So, how can Indiana University marshal some of its strengths in areas like our School of Public Health, SPEA, our School of Education and really coalesce some of those strengths in a way that allows us to create a center of excellence that can more deeply research these issues, contribute to policy and practice in ways that might actually make a difference in the lives of Hoosiers in this region?"

Moving Forward With A Plan

The steering committee hopes to have a funding proposal together by March. They're hoping the Lilly Endowment, which provided a $650,000 grant for the economic development study, will offer more assistance as the committee begins taking action.

After some funding is secured, they’ll start seeking partners to help implement the strategies outlined in the plan.

They don't have a timeline for when all of the goals will be completed.

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