News that John Sampson will step down as president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is an opportunity to recognize the invaluable contribution he made in building a regional approach to attracting, creating and retaining jobs. It's also an opportunity to reconsider the structure of economic development efforts in northeast Indiana.
Sampson was the founding leader of the partnership, which grew from the realization that northeast Indiana counties were competing against one another to their disadvantage.
“We just were taking each other apart at the seams in the name of winning,” Sampson recalled in a 2016 video marking the organization's 10th anniversary. “Economic development was won or lost at a community border. If you were in the jurisdiction, you were a winner; if you were outside the jurisdiction, you were a loser.”
With prompting by business leaders, elected officials and community leaders first established the partnership as an initiative to market the region. They soon realized the region needed to do more in developing talent, sites, infrastructure and broadband to compete in what had become a global economy. Since then, the regional partnership has also taken the lead in advancing efforts at population growth and improving quality of life in northeast Indiana.
Board members have indicated they will begin a national search for Sampson's successor, but it's worth taking some time to consider the evolution of southwest Indiana's economic development efforts, where three groups are merging in an attempt to create a leaner, more effective organization. The Southwest Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville and the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana voted last month to combine operations, effective April 1. The new organization is the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership.
Tara Barney, CEO of the Southwest Indiana Chamber, told Evansville's Courier & Press the merger would bring a coordinated approach to economic development. Someone involved in merger discussions observed that with multiple players involved, an investor or company considering the region “doesn't know whose door to knock on.”
The three organizations are located in the same building on Main Street in Evansville. Coincidentally, Greater Fort Wayne and the regional partnership have offices in the same building on Fort Wayne's Main Street. Could this be our own opportunity to create a more efficient, streamlined and influential economic development entity?
The groundwork Sampson laid in cultivating trust among the 11 partner counties could make such a merger possible. While neighboring counties once feared Fort Wayne and Allen County would dominate all efforts to draw jobs, the past 15 years have proven the coordination and collaboration among counties makes for a stronger region, not just a stronger Fort Wayne. Leaders in neighboring communities and in Fort Wayne have come to recognize the value each brings the others.
One area where the regional partnership has long struggled is diversity. Efforts to balance representation from all partners have created a glaring imbalance with demographic trends overall. The Greater Fort Wayne organization could bring strengths in that area to benefit the entire region.
The regional partnership was a key player in the successful bid to win $42 million in state funds through the Regional Cities Initiative. It has since generated more than $264 million in public-private investment, with more than two dozen successful projects across the 11-county area. While that creates a strong case for regional collaboration, northeast Indiana still faces great challenges in achieving wage growth. A new, streamlined approach to economic development deserves consideration.