People have replaced businesses as the recruitment target for economic development.
Unemployment in Wells County is at or below 4 percent — the level considered by many economists to be “functional full employment.” Chad Kline, Wells County’s economic development director, says the emphasis is now on attracting and developing workers rather than enticing would-be employers to locate here.
“Jobs are everywhere now,” Kline told the members of the Bluffton Common Council this week as he reviewed his annual report with them. “There aren’t a lot of places struggling with high unemployment now.”
As Mayor Ted Ellis put it during Kline’s presentation: “We want people to move here.”
The No. 1 item that Kline lists under his list of 2017 projects is “Workforce Retention and Attraction.”
“Workforce availability is becoming a serious issue for Wells County employers,” he said in the report.
Among the ideas he lists in his report to address that problem are:
• A housing study and infrastructure needs analysis.
• Introducing high school students to manufacturing opportunities.
• Increased internship opportunities for high school and college students.
• Initiating a marketing campaign to reach college freshmen and sophomores to connect them early with internship opportunities with Wells County businesses.
• Developing training programs to meet the needs of Wells County employers.
• Conducting trips to college campuses to introduce students to Wells County employment opportunities.
“If it is going to get more workers to come here, I think it will be worth it,” Kline said.
There is one similarity between attracting businesses to Wells County and attracting people to Wells County: Everybody needs a place.
For businesses, sites are certified “shovel ready,” meaning any impediments to construction have been taken care of before any ground is broken. For people, it’s housing.
Kline’s report says that Wells County is joining Adams County for what is called a “Housing Study and Infrastructure Needs Analysis.” The study, which is being partially funded by Indiana Michigan Power, will determine what kind of housing exists and is available and what kind is planned.
The housing study is something that Ellis is looking forward to seeing.
“Do we have enough housing? We’re going to find out,” he said.
The problem, he said, is that Wells County may not have the type of housing needed. He’s been told, for instance, that the city needs more rental housing. Also, for a while, the city had several tax credit housing sites built (Pine Grove and Lilac Lane, for example).
“I think we have enough bedrooms, but they’re not distributed in the right manner,” Ellis said.
There is also the matter of “quality of life.” To put it another way, is Wells County a place where people want to live?
“We have been able to concentrate on ‘quality of life’ issues like the Parks Department because we have not had to continually put money into infrastructure repair,” Ellis said.
The No. 1 item that Kline listed on his “key activities” page is “business expansion and retention,” and he said that he visited 44 Wells County businesses last year “to discuss expansions, program alignment, logistics, and retention challenges.” In other words: What can we do for the employers we already have?
Kline’s report also said that there was $11.6 million in new investment in Wells County businesses in 2016, with 14 additional jobs created. Investments were made at Almco Steel, $1.5 million; Roembke Manufacturing and Design Inc., $1.975 million; Pena’s Mechanical Contractors Inc., $64,472; ADM Animal Nutrition, $221,000; Pretzels Inc., $7 million; and Rethceif Packaging, $850,000.
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