2019 ANNUAL REPORT BY THE STARKE COUNTY ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION TO THE STARKE COUNTY COMMISSIONERS AND COUNCIL
Pursuant to a contract between Starke County and the Starke County Economic Development Foundation (SCEDF), entitled “Agreement for Economic Development Programs and Services”, SCEDF is to perform various services on behalf of the County and to make report on the activities it has engaged in during the year. Specifically, SCEDF is charged with the following eight (8) general services which follow, with a description of what has been accomplished by SCEDF during 2019:
Before beginning this report, it is very important to note the importance of other organizations and governmental bodies within Starke County contributing towards the economic development within the County, in addition to the work of the Foundation. The Foundation alone cannot be the only entity charged with that responsibility. Typical factors that influence economic development are wage rates, infrastructure, availability and price of land and buildings, population, skills of the workforce, and workforce training. SCEDF works to enhance the attractiveness of these factors where they can. However, economic development is influenced by many other factors as well. Some of these are school related – like graduation rates, test scores, grades given to school corporations by the State of Indiana, educational attainment, and the like. Others include healthcare availability, public safety, drug use, housing, retail offerings, recreational and entertainment offerings, local government support for engagement with industry, and the arts. A lot of these factors are influenced by other groups and agencies. SCEDF collaborates with many of these groups and agencies to help improve their positive impact on economic development.
Another important issue is the positive perception of our community by site selectors, who most often investigate a community without the local people ever being aware that our community was being considered. SCEDF’s work at promoting our community can be enhanced if the whole county is working together to build a positive image. In other words, SCEDF is not the only entity in the Community that can make positive gains in economic development without the help of the whole community working together.
ONE. Serve as the County’s primary point of contact for community development and economic development services.
During 2019, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation sent out approximately 89 requests from site selectors looking at Indiana for possible projects. Of those requests, some 41 did not include Starke County in their area of interest. Another 41 projects were not responded to because the request sought buildings or sites that were not available in the County. The Foundation did respond to a total of 7 requests, submitting either sites or buildings that appeared to meet the threshold requirements of the request.
Each of the three municipalities in the County as well as the County itself have looked to the Foundation as being the primary source of contact with site selectors, and the Foundation office also serves as a clearinghouse for a variety of questions that get directed to the office, from people looking for county offices, zoning questions, dead animals on a road, and even calls for CenturyLink who have for some reason included the Foundation telephone number as their number on their website or telephone book.
The Foundation works with the Starke County Chamber of Commerce on inquiries that they may receive, and through its membership with the Northwest Indiana Forum, any interest in Starke County expressed by a company are also referred to the Foundation for response.
In addition to industrial sites, the Foundation has in the past also assisted in the location of the TSC store, Dollar General, and other retail sites or concerns, and in its role as a satellite office for the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, has met with several interested parties that might want to start a new business somewhere in the County.
TWO. Conduct business recruitment activities designed to provide new employment and an improved tax base throughout Starke County.
The effort to become a Stellar Community was spearheaded by Larry Wickert who helped launch this effort and who remained involved in a large way throughout the year. He spent an extensive amount of time in keeping members of the various committees on task so they could complete their jobs timely and was invaluable as part of the glue that helped the plan come together. He attended more meetings than anyone would have ever dreamed possible, many of which were hosted at the SCEDF facility, and did a wonderful job of leadership throughout the year. What many may have thought impossible did not deter Larry, and the fact that the group was able to become a finalist in the competition and were able to put together a very good plan for the future in large measure was due to his hard work. The fruits of this labor are starting to ripen as there is already a great deal of communication and working together throughout the county, which is more than perhaps ever before, and the committee is already talking about moving forward with a second application this year.
The Stellar effort helped bring the entire County community together in planning for the future of the County, and the working group included representatives from all corners of the County as well as many different interest groups. After comments are received from OCRA in mid-February, and the announcement in late January as to the rules of the 2020 competition, a final decision will be made as to whether to submit a new application. A County working together, creating a place where people want to live will in the future do much to help create new jobs and a bigger tax base.
The Foundation and the City of Knox have been able to entice Common Collabs to the Knox Industrial Park, with a new structure scheduled to begin construction this spring. The Foundation’s ongoing efforts to bring this company and its promise of good-paying jobs to Starke County working with Mayor Estok were crucial in convincing them to come. A groundbreaking was held in November which gave Starke County an opportunity to meet and speak with the parties who will own this facility and efforts continue now to work out all of the final details in what it will take to get this company up and running. At peak occupancy, this facility could entail 150,000 square feet, and employ 80-100 employees. This will also spur some additional interest in the Knox Industrial Park for the future. The effort to attract Common Collabs took place over several months of work by the Foundation to come up a plan which would work for the City of Knox as well as Common Collabs.
The Foundation met with local industries that use the Lead Track, together with the County and officials with Railworks to come up with a plan for future needs on that rail line. Using information from those meetings, a new fee system for users of the line was established and agreed to by the County, and a plan for maintaining that line as well as fiscal responsibility was established. The Foundation manages this County-owned Lead Track for the County and uses the Lead Track as a part of their attraction to certain industries who have expressed a need for rail service. During 2019, several companies expressed such an interest, and rail seems to be growing in popularity among companies seeking a location.
Jail Inmate Training Program
SCILL and SCEDF spearheaded a new program whereby inmates at the Starke County Corrections Facility could be trained to become welders, and if successful in that program, be allowed to leave the facility and work full time with a local or area employer that was willing to support the program. Ron Gifford applied for and received two grants for this program, the first one in the amount of $5000 from the Operation Roundup Program of Kankakee Valley REMC to be used for equipment only, and the second, also in the amount of $5000 from the Starke County Community Foundation which could be used to pay for the instructor. The jail staff selected the initial six inmates for this program, followed by a meeting with Judge Hall who instructed the inmates as a group what this training could mean to them in the way of job training as well as a way to be able to leave the jail and become good citizens with a job as well. A local employer allowed the use of their facility as well as their equipment for this training and an employee of theirs also agreed to serve as the instructor. With funds from the KVREMC grant, a helmet, green coat, beanie, steel-toed shoes, and necessary hand tools was purchased for each trainee, and with the funds from the Community Foundation, the instructor was paid.
Early into the program, one of the inmates was dismissed from the program by the jail staff for an infraction at the jail, and the other five (5) completed the course and passed all tests provided by the instructor. The first three were offered employment and on that basis, were allowed to leave the jail and become employees. All three accepted that offer of employment, but one was unable to pass a drug screening, while the other two did go to work. One ultimately was dismissed for missing too many days, and one left due to a probation violation. While employed both proved to be good to excellent welders. The other two inmates had other charges pending against them from other jurisdictions, so they were unable to be dismissed from the jail.
A plan is now in place to start a second program in January or February of 2020 with a heavier emphasis on Probation and/or Community Corrections keeping in closer touch with inmates upon their release to try and help them not fall back on their previous way of life.
Larry Wickert worked a booth on behalf of Stellar Communities and Ron Gifford worked a booth on behalf of the Starke County College and Career Coalition in efforts to communicate what each of those groups was trying to do to make Starke County a better place.
Starke County Leadership Class
The Foundation has hosted one meeting of the Starke County Leadership class for about the last 5 years, providing information about the Foundation as well as demographic materials about Starke County.
Meetings with Elected Officials
In addition to attending regular meetings of the three municipalities in the County as well as the County Commissioners/Council meetings, the Foundation also served as host for the Northwest Indiana Forum meeting with Senator Mike Braun, attended by representatives from all over northwest Indiana. In addition, Congresswoman Jackie Walorski visited Kids Closet and OTES in North Judson, with the staff of the Foundation.
HUB Zone Meeting Host
The Foundation hosted the Small Business Administration (SBA) seminar on HUB Zones – what that means and how to achieve status under that designation. Part of Starke County is in a HUB Zone at the current time.
County Planning and Zoning
After receiving several telephone calls from companies interested in establishing solar farms in Starke County, Larry Wickert led an effort of the Starke County Plan Commission and staff to come up with a Solar Ordinance that would guide the plan commission through the process if that movement towards solar farms came to fruition. The result was an addition to the zoning ordinance that covered that issue.
The Foundation determined after these meetings that the state of the County Zoning Ordinance needed attention. The Foundation has contracted with a former intern of theirs to go through the entire zoning and subdivision ordinances, retype the entire document and incorporate the many additions and changes that have taken place over the years into one cohesive document. The plan is to then put that document on the County website and put a plan in place to keep it updated in the years to come. It was agreed to split the cost of this effort 50/50 between the Foundation and the County. At the date of this report, approximately 60% of those ordinances have been updated and it is hoped to complete that project within the first quarter of 2020.
San Pierre Drainage Issue
During the Stellar effort, it was found that a drainage issue exists outside the post office in San Pierre that makes getting to and from a car to the post office a very unsafe journey when it rains or snows. Larry Wickert has contacted the County Surveyor to see what can be done to correct this situation and he is working on a drainage plan that would address this problem.
Larry Wickert nominated Linda Lewandowski for a 1st Source Foundation Community Leadership Award and she was chosen to receive that award for all of her efforts in starting and keeping Kids Closet going as a vital and important community organization.
North Judson Grocery Store
North Judson has once again lost its only grocery store, and for the second time, the Foundation has been involved in trying to find new ownership that could reestablish that store in the community. Talks are ongoing with a couple of different people who may have an interest in doing that.
OTES was nominated by Ron Gifford as the Northwest Indiana Emerging Business of the Year, and they were selected to receive that honor at the annual E-Day event sponsored by the Indiana Small Business Development Center. Nan Wellman was present along with the staff of the Foundation and her family to receive this award in Merrillville. At the same luncheon, Fingerhut Bakery was honored as being the Family Business of the Year so two Starke County businesses were honored that day.
The Foundation continues to work with governmental bodies as well as industrial companies to provide tax abatement to deserving companies. The Foundation has agreed with the County to spearhead the efforts to make sure that companies who are given tax abatements turn in all required paperwork in a timely fashion to ensure that the promises they made when asking for abatement have in fact been met. The Foundation also performed a study this past year which was shared with county officials showing the effect that tax abatements have on a community and will continue to update that work annually for the benefit of all municipalities in the County. Included in that study was the effect that tax caps are having on many of the industrial companies, especially those in the Knox Industrial Park. This was done by the Foundation to ensure that County leaders are fully aware of what tax caps are doing when they look at revenue losses.
US 30 Coalition
SCEDF had been instrumental in past years in helping set up and get started with what became known as the US 30 Coalition, a group of counties working together to establish US 30 as a freeway from SR 49 on the west all the way to the Indiana/Ohio line on the east. Several meetings of the Board of that group were held over a few years, with a consultant hired to try and sell the prospect to the State of Indiana as vital to the area involved from an economic development perspective. SCEDF had been paying the costs of Starke County being involved in this endeavor for the first couple of years, with the County assuming that obligation for the past two years. A local committee had also been set up and met a few times at SCEDF offices to come up with the plan for Starke County with regard to where overpasses and interchanges should be placed if this went forward, together with what roads would dead end at US 30. For the first couple of years, Charles Weaver had been the County representative on the Board, and when he retired and the County assumed the payment of the fees, Rik Ritzler became the Starke County representative on this Coalition. At one time, the Indiana Governor said this was one of his top goals, but since that time, despite the efforts of the Coalition and several of the counties, the concept of funding for this to become a freeway has waned. It is not clear at this point where this project will go in the future despite the fact that there is strong support for it from all counties involved except for LaPorte and Porter counties.
After the Chamber of Commerce secured a grant from the State of Indiana to look at areas of the County that have little or no internet service, Lisa Dan has served as a member of the group working with Purdue to come up with a plan for those areas of Starke County. Improving internet service to all areas of the County would help students with homework assignments and projects, and also make the County more attractive to industrial users.
THREE. Provide economic development marketing and promotion, including a website and written materials with up-to-date content.
Over the course of the past two years, the Foundation’s website has undergone a refreshing and the current website has been designed so as to allow staff at the Foundation to make almost all of the updates and new sections without the need to contact the developer of the website to make changes. This allows the Foundation to almost immediately change content on the website as soon as it becomes known so that it remains current and up to date. The material found on the website is directed primarily to site selectors with the kinds of information they are seeking about the County, so it is made purposely to allow them to immediately see what they are looking for as easily as possible. While aimed primarily at this group, the website also contains a great deal of information about the industrial concerns that have locations here, as well as links to other organizations, libraries, local and area press outlets, and just about anything else someone might want to know about the County and its people.
Written marketing materials are created as needed and contain information and data that is needed by site selectors, or whatever other group or organization it is directed to. During the Manufacturers Day event, all materials are prepared and printed onsite and distributed to all of the seventh graders from four different school corporations.
FOUR. Provide industrial park planning and promotion, in concert with the economic development marketing and promotion described above.
KV REMC Substation
The Foundation successfully worked with KV REMC to find a location for their next substation near the Knox Industrial Park. The previous site was used for the Traffic Control expansion a few years ago.
The Foundation continues its efforts to reacquire the 320-acre Sysco site which is no longer needed by that Company. The Foundation is currently waiting on company officials to provide a price for that property. In addition, since the flood plain lines were redrawn in the past few years, the Foundation has worked with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to see what can be done to make that property more valuable for industrial expansion. Once a price has been established for the property, the Foundation will seek a partner to develop that land.
Expansion of Industrial Parks
In addition to trying to acquire back the SYSCO property, the Foundation has also engaged in talks with owners of property that surround the existing industrial parks around the County to see what land is available and evaluate its worth. At the present time there is both a lack of developed land and available buildings in Starke County to accommodate future growth.
FIVE. Build mutually beneficial relationships with national, state, and regional entities engaged in community and economic development.
Work with Schools
SCILL and SCEDF continued working with all three school corporations located in Starke county as well as Culver in many different ways during the year. Economic development depends in great part to convincing industrial prospects that the quality of education offered in the community is good, and that there is a true partnership among the schools, SCEDF, and the industrial community at large. The Foundation works with the schools in many ways, including the following:
Larry Wickert taught a Junior Achievement class at North Judson this past year. Junior Achievement has as its goal to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy. By teaching such a class, the Foundation is attempting to do our part in letting the young people in our county know about how valuable they will be in the future to the well-being of this county or wherever they may choose to live and work. The Foundation is trying to help mold these young people to become good citizens.
Knox Community School Corporation Steering Committee
The Knox School system is moving forward at this time with plans for a $20M improvement to all three of its schools. Ron Gifford was invited to serve as a part of a community steering committee to listen to presentations about the status of each building, to tour each facility to see first-hand what those needs were, and to make recommendations to the School Board on what the community felt they should do. As a result of that committee’s work, SCILL was offered an opportunity to move its welding and Robotics classes to a new vocational wing of the high school. However, the space offered was to be shared with the Culinary Arts classes and was felt to be way too little to accommodate all three programs and would have been adequate to only house the welding program and as a result, this opportunity did not develop any further. As a result of these improvements which are now being planned, the space occupied by welding and robotics classes will no longer be available after the 2020-21 school year, so efforts are currently underway to find another location, either to be constructed or to be occupied.
For the 7th consecutive year, SCEDF planned and carried outs its annual event geared towards 7th graders in the four local school corporations. Again this year, approximately 350 students had the opportunity to talk with representatives of several local and area industrial companies about what their companies do, what kinds of jobs they have to offer, and what education is crucial to obtaining one of those jobs in the future. The 7th grade has been chosen as the impact group because the following year, they begin planning out what courses they will take in high school and we want to make sure that they have some kind of idea on what they might take if they plan to work in an industrial setting. This also serves as a chance for SCEDF to let our industrial people know that it is trying to work on their behalf in providing a workforce in the future for them. In addition to the opportunity for the students, SCEDF also hosts a luncheon where a report on the year’s activities of SCEDF is given and features a speaker, which in the past has included local industrial officials as well as representatives of various state agencies that we work with on a regular basis.
Three years ago, on the basis of the success of Manufacturers Day, we were approached by school counselors to assist them with their annual Reality Store event, targeted for 8th graders. At this event, students from the four schools are provided with a job of their choosing and capabilities, told how much that job would earn, what education would be necessary to secure such a job and what the costs of that might be, as well as what it costs to secure transportation, housing, clothing, enjoy some form of recreation, and what it costs to raise their own children. They were having problems at the time with getting adults to help with this event from all walks of life and suffered from a lack of funding for some necessary items to make the event better. With the assistance of SCEDF, help has been provided to help with that funding, secure good people from a variety of jobs to work the event, and have shortened the length of the event which also helps attract more adults willing to give up a part of a day.
College and Career Success Coalition
The State of Indiana a few years back asked Starke County to join a list of other counties from around the state in trying to encourage more people in our county to continue their education past high school, be it in college or vocational training of some sort, so as to improve the workforce within the county. Ron Gifford has served on that Coalition since its inception, as the SCEDF office has served as headquarters for this Coalition and hosts all of their meetings each year. Other members of the governing board come from the school corporations, Youth Club, and WorkOne among others.
Ivy Tech Board
Since January of 2019, Ron Gifford has served as a member of the Ivy Tech Board for the combined campuses of Michigan City and Valparaiso. In this role he is able to continue in the partnership maintained between SCILL and Ivy Tech for development and implementation of the Robotics program as well as provide advice on what Ivy Tech might be able to do either in Starke County or for its residents. One of the most recent programs that the Valparaiso campus has just approved which may fall into that category is a new degree and certificate program in agriculture.
Partnerships with other Organizations
The Foundation is a member of the Northwest Indiana Forum, which includes representatives from all seven counties in northwest Indiana, as well as being a member of the Indiana Economic Development Association. The latter organization sponsors training meetings and provides other information for economic development officials throughout the state. The former organization is the regional group that assists local groups in trying to acquire additional investment into their communities.
Ron Gifford continues to serve as a Business Advisor for people in Starke and Pulaski Counties wishing to utilize the Small Business Development Center tools and assistance. In that role, he provides business help, like business plan assistance, to people wanting to start or grow a business in either of these two counties. He also hosts and presents workshops on various matters during the course of the year, and also attends monthly staff meetings held in Crown Point, Indiana.
Larry Wickert has been a member of the STOP Consortium, a group that is attempting to attack the local opioid problem and, in that role, has attended numerous meetings with local professionals.
Larry Wickert has become involved with the Prairie Trails group and was instrumental in working with that group to secure a NextLevel Grant to expand the trails in Starke County.
Larry Wickert has also attended meetings of the Hoosier Valley Railroad as they begin to work more closely with the Prairie Trails group to make the walking path in North Judson more comfortable.
An effort has already begun among the four southern tier counties of northwest Indiana to work together in promoting an agricultural strategy in those counties to complement the industrial and retail movements in the northern three counties that make up this region, as a part of the Ignite the Region Strategic plan adopted by the Northwest Indiana Forum.
Community Asset Inventory
Ball State published their second Community Asset Inventory this past year, and that led to inviting one of their authors to come to Starke County and explain further and in more detail how the communities in Indiana were rated and what could be done to improve the position held by Starke County in that report. As the result of that meeting, talks will continue with Ball State personnel to try and come up with a plan for the future.
SIX. Engage with entities currently doing business in Starke County to promote their retention and expansion.
Work with local Industry
Norton Packaging Expansion
The Foundation spent a great deal of time working out the details which has allowed Norton to expand in Starke County for the third time, with the latest expansion providing for a 40,000 square foot warehouse to be added, along with much needed improvements and a larger space for administrative offices. This expansion will provide an additional 20 jobs in the County from a plant that operates 363 days per year with three shifts each day. The Foundation has done the financing for Norton since their locating in the Hamlet area and leases the buildings to Norton.
J.W. Hicks Expansion
The Foundation assisted J.W. Hicks with their most recent addition on the west side of Kloeckner Drive, south of Pacific Avenue. The Foundation helped with annexation, tax abatement, and other matters as this company continues to grow with an additional 20 employees added as a part of this most recent expansion.
During the course of the past year, visits were made at several companies with the purpose of these visits being primarily to see what help the Foundation can provide to help each company remain viable here in the County and find out about any plans for expansion in the future. The current number of employees working at that company, new products that they may be looking at, or any other issues that they might have are discussed. These visits are very important in that they let our companies know they are important to us, and it lets us remind them of something they were told when they chose to come here, that the Foundation will work every bit as hard to keep them here as was spent in trying to attract them here in the first place.
SEVEN. Assist in the successful establishment of small, locally owned and operated businesses as described elsewhere in the contract.
The current contract between the County and the Foundation has requirements for the Foundation to provide small business assistance in the form of a loan program funded up to $50,000 per year. The Foundation prepared rules and regulations that would be followed in such a program and did receive an application from one business prospect. When that proposal was submitted to the Finance Committee of the Foundation for their review and recommendation, there were concerns expressed by the Finance Committee about this whole loan program. Those concerns included the lack of staff that was knowledgeable about Federal regulations that might govern these types of loan programs, what regulations might be in effect, and the lack of viable business concerns requesting funding in this manner. The Finance Committee provided a list of additional materials they wanted to review on behalf of the applicant, and once presented to that applicant, no further action was taken since no response to the additional materials came forward. The Finance Committee also directed that the Loan Program dictated by the contract with the County be discussed with the Foundation’s auditors which did take place. The auditors advised the Foundation to be very careful in trying to administer a program like this, and did cite the lack of staff familiar with the rules and regulations concerning such a program, and further suggested that the Foundation consider a grant program rather than a loan program as a means of carrying out the directives in the contract. As the result of those actions and advice, the Foundation has begun the process of providing for grants rather than loans, and have thus far awarded one grant detailed below, and at the present time, is scheduled to review a second application at its February Finance Committee meeting.
Day Care Program Grant
SCEDF has assisted Brandy Pohl, the owner of Max’s Playhouse in Culver, with her grant application to the State of Indiana that was successful, and as a result her intention is to start offering a high quality day care operation in North Judson, which will be the only such day care facility to be offered in Starke County. It is believed that if we are able to reach additional pre-K children and provide them with a good beginning on their educational journey, they will be better prepared in the future when they arrive on our school doorstep to be successful. This meets one of the items that the Stellar Committee identified as being one of the needs in this County so we are excited to see how our assistance in grant funding will be implemented.
EIGHT. Engage in land acquisition.
The Foundation has been exploring the possibility of additional land acquisition in the area surrounding all four Industrial parks in the County due to the fact that inventory of industrial park land is dwindling. As mentioned elsewhere in this report, those efforts include the following:
KNOX INDUSTRIAL PARK
With the attraction of Common Collabs to the 53-acre parcel available in Knox further efforts have begun with neighbors on all sides of the present boundaries of the industrial park to gauge interest in selling their land for industrial development. The Foundation will continue these discussions with any and all parties.
NORTH JUDSON INDUSTRIAL PARK
There are approximately 14 acres of land available in the current park that is owned by someone other than the Foundation, and efforts continue to try and market that parcel to interested parties. A few years ago the Foundation also approached the North Judson Town Council as to where they would prefer to see the next industrial park be located that was easily connectable to Town utilities, and the area along SR 10 to the west of Town was identified, and the property owners in that area are not adverse to seeing industrial development. Several have allowed the Foundation to list their sites on the state data base as being available. Some of the property can be used without a huge expenditure of money.
As stated earlier, the Foundation continues to explore the possibility of someone purchasing the 320 acres that were purchased by SYSCO a decade ago. As soon as a price for such land is provided, the Foundation will seek a partner or partners to help purchase and develop that site.
Norton has expanded their operations in this park, and EZ Blockchain has also rented a parcel of ground. This park still has additional acreage that can be sold, and it has been offered to several site selection opportunities, but since there is no water and sewer service to that area, and that would take a large expenditure of money to do so, a particular user has to be found that does not need Town water to interest them in this site. The uncertainty of the US 30 project and how a company would be able to access US in the future if it became a freeway has also led to some uncertainty that works against selling that property.
SCEDF had a very busy year in 2019 as can be seen after reading this report. Despite seeing funding cuts from both the County and the City, SCEDF has continued to go about its business and as a result of that hard work, two expansions and a new company have been the result. In addition, whenever the Foundation has found areas of concern in the County, staff had jumped in to try and make the County a better place. Examples of that abound in this report, from the Stellar effort to membership on Boards and organizations that have as their purpose improving the quality of life in Starke County.