A river runs through Oklahoma City.
But 20 years ago, the citys 600,000 residents couldnt count on consistency from the waterway. The flow varied from a trickle to a torrent, depending on recent rainfall.
In dry times, we used to have to mow the river. Thats pretty bad, recalled Mike Packnett, who was a health system executive in Oklahoma City at the time.
Then the mayor of Oklahomas capital city hatched a bold plan: A series of dams upriver could store water and release it when needed. The project was a rousing success. Since then, the city has established a national reputation as host of elite rowing competitions.
Thats the kind of gutsy thinking Fort Wayne needs, local leaders say. And the best way to achieve audacious goals, they say, is to consolidate the city and countys economic development efforts behind a single vision.
Oklahoma City; Milwaukee; Spokane, Wash.; and Louisville and Lexington, Ky., are examples of cities that have thrived with collaborative approaches, local leaders say.
So those cities and more are being used for inspiration as Fort Wayne and Allen County restructure their economic development organizations, including the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance.
The effort, first announced Sept. 11, is intended to make the process of requesting economic development assistance easier to navigate. Officials believe combining efforts and visions will help the area compete for business investments and new jobs.
An early skeptic
Successful ventures in some cities studied include a downtown arena, a medical school, a water cluster and a downtown bourbon district.
Packnett, who is leading local streamlining, wasnt always gung-ho about grand plans.
I was part of that public that had to be convinced, he said about Oklahoma Citys dams.
Before moving to Fort Wayne to become president and CEO of Parkview Health in mid-2006, Packnett served on the board of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
Its unbelievable to me, he said of Oklahoma Citys success with river development. It turned around, really, the whole psyche of the community.
Packnett considers his experience valuable. As a former skeptic, he understands the need to build the public will to support the projects that will propel the community forward.
Harrison Square is a local example, the CEO said. The project includes the TinCaps minor league baseball park, a hotel and a building with residential, business and retail tenants.
Packnett cited Denver as another example of a community leveraging city and suburban support to achieve a big goal.
The area recently installed a light rail line that transports commuters to downtown jobs. The project was backed even by folks whose neighborhoods didnt get connected. They understood that everybody wins because light rail makes Denver more attractive to investors, Packnett said.
Communities that can align goals create a powerful force, he said.
Spokane’s big win
Studying other cities efforts is nothing new.
Eastern Washington state volunteers spent about 18 months holding meetings and visiting other cities before officially forming Greater Spokane Inc. by combining the Chamber of Commerce and economic development organization in 2007.
Economic development was split into a separate organization in the 1980s.
The consolidated non-profits strength is in being regional, unified and focused, said Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane.
Hadley pointed to the Washington State University medical school scheduled to open in October as proof that Spokanes collaborative effort brings results.
The regions economic development officials realized that 33,000 people in that area work in health care, but there wasnt a medical school, Hadley said. Getting one was priority No. 1.
The economic development organization, which has an annual budget of about $3.5 million, sets four or five priorities each year.
For comparison, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance had a $1.34 million annual budget in 2011.
The recession hit shortly after the consolidation, so Hadley wonders how much better the organization could have performed under other economic conditions.
Even so, Greater Spokane has worked with employers whove created more than 3,000 new jobs. The estimated direct economic impact is about $760 million a year, which doesnt include the multiplier effect of wages being spent in the community. The organization also cites $80 million in capital investment.
Combining the organizations has ended the need for separate chamber and economic development boards of directors, Hadley said. Not only can there be conflicts when they have separate agendas, but the need for two groups of volunteers can strain a midsized community, he said.
Spokanes population was just shy of 209,000 last year. Fort Wayne reported about 256,000 residents.
Wisconsin is home to The Milwaukee 7.
The regional economic development group, which represents seven counties, was launched in September 2005 to represent a population of about 2 million.
Competing as a region broadens our range of choices and opportunities and gives us the competitive edge that we need, today, and into the future, the organization says on its website.
The Milwaukee 7 might compare more directly with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, which represents a 10-county region. Even so, local officials studied its model.
Like Fort Wayne, Milwaukee has three rivers. Officials there wanted to leverage that natural resource to launch something distinctive.
They helped create the first graduate school of freshwater sciences in the U.S., said Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of Milwaukees Department of City Development.
The project required people in the government, higher education and private sectors to all have their oars in the water, rowing in the same direction to create a water cluster, he said.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee launched the graduate program.
The private sectors contribution will soon include a water accelerator – a location intended to give a stronger boost than a business incubator, Marcoux said. The accelerator will provide working space to startup companies in a building where they have access to scientists, legal experts, water industry leaders and a full flow laboratory.
The building, now under construction, is scheduled to open in two months.
The region is a good answer for companies – such as food processors – that need a lot of water for production, Marcoux said.
In another effort, Milwaukee officials have reclaimed as much land inside the city as possible to create downtown housing and business parks. They see it as governments role because individual developers cant afford to tackle such grand projects.
Louisville officials streamlined their economic development process in 1997 by combining the Chamber of Commerce with two stand-alone economic development organizations.
Five years later, leaders merged city and county economic development offices.
It has really simplified the process, said Eileen Pickett, executive vice president of Greater Louisville Inc.
The Kentucky city, which lies across the Ohio River from southeast Indiana, has a separate downtown development group. Pickett sees its focus on downtown amenities as complementary to her organizations goals.
But Pickett doesnt point to that as the perfect arrangement for everyone. Each organization and city needs to chart its own path, she said.
I dont think theres a cookie-cutter way to do any of this stuff, she said.
Louisvilles significant projects over the past few years have included building a downtown 22,700-seat arena, developing a bourbon district and creating a waterfront park. More downtown residents and restaurants also have made the area more vibrant, Pickett said.
But the city of about 600,000 still needs a downtown grocery.
Were not where we want to be yet, she said.
One secret to the organizations success, Pickett said, is starting with a goal and making sure every action works toward it.
Drive 80 miles east on I-64, and you come to Lexington, population 302,000.
The Kentucky city merged its Chamber of Commerce, economic development group and workforce development organization in January 2004 to form Commerce Lexington Inc.
Lexingtons city and county governments have merged into one entity that includes an economic development office. But it collaborates with Commerce Lexington on projects, said Gina Greathouse, senior vice president of Commerce Lexington.
The nonprofit is in the same building as offices for the Bluegrass Small Business Development Center and the University of Kentuckys Innovation and Commercialization Center. The goal is to have everyone working with employers to be sitting around the same table making decisions, she said.
What we try to do is make it seamless for the client, she said.
Greathouse wasnt always a believer. She was a low-level staff member with the economic development arm before its merger with the chamber and didnt like the idea. In hindsight, the union was a success.
I think people just need to go into everything with an open mind, she said.
Commerce Lexingtons biggest challenge now is that business is almost too good for its seven-person economic development staff to handle comfortably.
The organization received more credibility and funding with the merger, which has resulted in working with about triple the number of businesses, Greathouse said. The economic development staff added jobs about two years ago to strengthen its four-person team.
Theres never enough people, she said, because so many companies now are expanding and growing.