SPECIAL REPORT: Collaboration is key to economic growth in northeast Indiana's cities

A mural in downtown New Haven on Broadway Street.

As New Haven’s Mayor Terry McDonald prepares to step down in 2019 instead of seeking re-election for a sixth term in office, his administration has a lot to be proud of.

Just last year, companies like Sauder Manufacturing Co. from Grabill, Indiana, and Multimatic Inc., based in Canada, chose the city for their new facilities. And in the last five years, New Haven’s own Continental Diamond Tool has expanded three times.

But as McDonald reflects on his legacy, he admits that these wins in the business sector are not created and enjoyed by New Haven alone. Instead, they’re part of a larger shift toward county and regional collaboration that has taken place across northeast Indiana during his time in office. Mayor Terry McDonald

When he first became mayor about 19 years ago, he remembers how cities in the region were struggling to advance on their own, competing with each other for economic growth and business attraction.

Even as collaborative organizations like the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. emerged, a competitive, individualistic mindset persisted across many cities.

But over the years, McDonald and his administration in New Haven have adopted a new philosophy. While still he advocates for local governments to stay close to their people, he has learned that they can cooperate with other area governments for the greater good of the community. They might even be more effective that way.

Looking back, his legacy hints that one city’s success in attracting, retaining, and expanding business opportunities ultimately advances its surrounding county and region.

Creating an environment for business

When McDonald came into office in 1999, he knew that if he wanted to give his city a fighting chance, he had to attract new businesses to New Haven and support the development of companies already there.

So throughout his five terms in office, business attraction and retention played a large role in his work. As a result, he experienced firsthand the growth of New Haven’s local economy. But despite the city’s progress, he’s careful not to take too much credit for himself.

“Mayors do not create jobs,” McDonald says. “What we do is establish an environment where jobs can happen.”

That’s why creating a business-friendly community has been his administration’s priority from day one.

Along with other government officials and business executives throughout the region, McDonald serves on the board of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., the chamber of commerce and economic development organization for Allen County.

Greater Fort Wayne Inc. essentially acts as a project manager between county governments and businesses looking to relocate. When companies are interested in Allen County, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. is their first point of contact for guidance in the process of site selection and meeting area approvals.

In 2018, the organization was named the Indiana Chamber of the Year for surpassing its goal of recruiting 100 new investors in 2017 while increasing its retention rate to 92 percent, which is better than the national average for chamber organizations.

John Urbahns, Executive Vice President of Economic Development and Incoming CEO for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., says the goal of the organization is to market all of Allen County’s cities as ideal places for companies to expand. John Urbahns

The business-friendly environment that McDonald and his administration have created in New Haven makes their city particularly attractive to executives.

“New Haven has seen a lot of growth under Mayor McDonald,” Urbahns says. “He’s been a great partner to work with.”

New Haven is attractive to businesses because it was one of the first communities to participate in The Permitting Excellence Coalition (PEC). PEC’s initiative is to streamline the permitting process in order to make planning and zoning for businesses simpler. McDonald has also been dedicated to building relationships with business leaders firsthand.

“When a business owner can call you directly at your desk, that gives them a lot of confidence in local government and that they’re welcome here,” McDonald explains.

But creating a premier business community in one city of a county or region is only half the battle. To create a conducive environment for business, McDonald has learned that broader collaboration is key.

Collaboration is Key

One of the main ways regional leaders work to strengthen collaboration among northeast Indiana’s governments is through the Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Caucus.

Every month, mayors and commissioners from the region’s eleven counties meet to discuss issues in their communities, consider methods for better cooperation, and set goals for the future.

In 2018, one of the caucus’ four main policies focused on the growth of northeast Indiana’s workforce.

Urbahns says McDonald was instrumental to the inception this caucus. It took shape when he and other community leaders attended a conference in Denver, Colorado, which included a session about a monthly meeting held among 40 mayors in the Denver metropolitan area.

After hearing how this cooperation among the mayors bolstered their individual communities, leaders in northeast Indiana decided to create a similar caucus of their own. They have largely adopted the philosophy that northeast Indiana comes first—before their individual cities or counties. But that doesn’t mean that each city’s wins or losses aren’t important to the group.

McDonald says New Haven’s economic prosperity largely depends on Fort Wayne and the region, as a whole.

“Fort Wayne is the economic hub of the region, and New Haven is the little brother to the east,” McDonald says. “How Fort Wayne goes, so does the rest of us.”

According to McDonald, without Fort Wayne, northeast Indiana would be a much poorer area, since it is the largest city and metropolitan center, which has amenities that smaller communities lack. However, perhaps a less visited side of the equation is that Fort Wayne, in turn, would not be able to grow and develop like it is today without its regional cities, either.

McDonald explains that millions of dollars in revenue flow into Fort Wayne from its surrounding cities like New Haven for restaurants, tourism, entertainment, and more. Citizens across the region visit Fort Wayne for concerts and sporting events, like Komets or TinCaps games, which allows these amenities to thrive.

“All those venues would cease to exist if the region didn’t come together,” McDonald says.

He explains that northeast Indiana is also a mobile society where employees often commute from one city to another for work.

For instance, Lippert Components’ plans to construct a plant in New Haven by 2019, and when they do, it will have a ripple effect on the region, providing jobs and wages to regional residents. Most businesses in the area rely on other local companies for services or supplies, too, creating a money turnover that boosts local economies.

“If a business is in northeast Indiana, we all win,” McDonald says. “We have the same common goal: Making Allen County—making the region—the best place it can possibly be.”

This Special Report was made possible by Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

Mayor Ryan Daniel of Columbia City
Mayor Ryan Daniel of Columbia City
By Kara Hackett

About 30 minutes west of Fort Wayne, Columbia City is the largest rural community in Whitley County with just under 10,000 residents. But many of the people who live there don’t work there.

Actually, Whitley County has the second-highest net migration rate in the state, with 27 percent of its workforce commuting out of the county for daily work.

For Columbia City’s Mayor Ryan Daniel, who is seeking a third term in 2019, that means one big thing: Fort Wayne and other regional cities are crucial to Whitley County’s wellbeing.

“We rely on the cities around us,” Daniel says. “As goes the rest of northeast Indiana, so goes our county’s success.”

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Daniel to learn more about the benefits and challenges of regional collaboration and the role it could play in northeast Indiana’s future.

IFW: You were elected in 2011 at the age of 27 as the second youngest Mayor in Columbia City's history. What was it like stepping into such a large role at a young age?

RD: What’s really neat about it is that some of my biggest supporters have been the older generations because they’re hungry for innovation; they’re hungry for creativity; they’re hungry for growth.

When I stepped into this role, I spoke with other mayors from around the region, and I said: “Tell me what I need to know about the job of mayor. Tell me what I need to make sure I do to be a good mayor, so we’re making progress.”

Some of the things they said were expected, like make sure you pay attention to your city’s roads, infrastructure, and trash pickup. But they also said you need to be able to be a change agent in your community. You have four years guaranteed to you after you’re elected. You need to use those years to the best of your ability to collaborate and move your community forward.

We’ve done that. I got reelected for another four-year term in 2015, and I’m up for re-election again next year. It’s been a great honor to serve as mayor of my hometown community and a bigger honor to work with the fantastic people of northeast Indiana.

IFW: Tell us about the concept of regional collaboration. How has it played out in Columbia City over the years?

If you go back a decade or two decades, what you saw was a true lack of regional collaboration in northeast Indiana because many of us on outskirts of Allen County or Fort Wayne felt like the younger child, if you will. We felt like Fort Wayne was getting everything, and we weren’t being paid attention to. But a little under a decade ago, leaders throughout northeast Indiana started to say, “We aren’t big enough to be successful as individual cities.” We need to start working together.

When a company from the West Coast or someone from Europe is looking for a place to land their company, they don’t look at Columbia City or Auburn or Decatur, specifically. They look at what part of the country they want to be in first. Then they ask: Where do I want to be within the Midwest?

This realization led our leaders to believe that we needed to collaborate and really brand ourselves as part of northeast Indiana.

I was ushered in as mayor as this spirit of collaboration was starting to really grow. I feel like I bought into it quickly because it is very true that as Fort Wayne goes, so goes the rest of northeast Indiana. To understand that, all you have to do is look at US-30 at 7 a.m. or 5 p.m. every day. Our county, Whitley County, has the highest net migration out for work every day in northeast Indiana and second-highest net migration in the state.

IFW: We’ve heard that phrase, “What’s good for Fort Wayne is good for Columbia City,” and vice versa. Can you give us an example of where something that happened in Fort Wayne was good for Columbia City, or where something in Columbia City was good for Fort Wayne?

RD: As a community of about 10,000 people, we aren’t able to provide the quality of life amenities that Fort Wayne can with 280,000 people. We don’t have the ability to host a professional sports team, or bring in big music acts, like Paul McCartney or Elton John. So we often use Fort Wayne as a selling point for our residents. If you don’t want to live in a bigger city, but still have city amenities at your fingertips, we’re a good place to be.

On the other hand, with things here like the Russel and Evelyn Fahl Aquatics Center, we’ve attracted tens of thousands of residents from across northeast Indiana to come check out our city. It’s another way we can contribute to our community’s growth and vitality and the region’s, as well.

IFW: You previously served as Co-Chairman of the Northeast Indiana Mayors and Commissioners Caucus. Tell us about that experience. What did it teach you about the value and the challenge of collaboration among Indiana’s cities?

What I think people don’t know is there’s a lot of similarities among northeast Indiana’s elected officials. While there are certainly philosophical differences among mayors and commissioners, what’s neat about our region is we’re willing to put those differences on the table to talk about them and seek consensus.

Two decades ago, you might have heard stories of mayors and counties not working together, or of counties separated by their borders that didn’t talk.

What we have in northeast Indiana today is a model for collaboration that other regions and areas throughout Indiana have come here and said, “How can we replicate what you are doing in our neck of the woods?”

So I’ve learned there’s more common ground here than you’d think. Seeking consensus doesn’t mean that everyone agrees, but just that everyone can see from the other’s perspective.

As a society, we often struggle to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. But we do that here.

IFW: That’s great to hear. Looking to the future, what do you think will be the most important factor to ensure that northeast Indiana’s 11-county collaboration is successful in boosting business, talent, and opportunities here?

RD: We have to continue to band together and focus on the big challenges ahead of us. That means skilling up our workforce, attracting talent, and growing our population.

Northeast Indiana really needs to be able to effectively replace our worker base, or a large portion of our worker base, within the next 10-20 years as people retire. We also need to be skilling up, and that means not just encouraging students to go to college. We’ve gotten it so ingrained in us that college is the end-all, be-all for everybody. But the reality is that I have electrical linemen working on my staff now who are making more than my old college roommates. Skilling up our workforce means that not everybody goes to college, and that’s OK. We need to partner with regional universities to bridge gaps for individuals in our communities and find out what skillsets our residents have so we can match them to the needs of our area.

Another thing that is equally as important is we have to start touting the success that northeast Indiana is having. We always talk about the fact that northeast Indiana is a very humble region. We don’t like to flaunt our successes because we feel like it devalues what we do. But the world can’t know how great we are unless we tell them. We need to better equip our businesses and residents to be our advocates to the world.

In each community, our leaders often talk about the great things we’re doing in northeast Indiana, but that’s like Disney World telling you how great Disney World is. Many times, you need to hear it from a friend, or a colleague, or a relative. Before you believe it, it takes them saying, “Hey, Disney World is a great place. Go check it out.”

The same thing goes for northeast Indiana. If we want more good things to happen here, we have to talk about what’s already happening.