By Dean Whittaker

This month I had the opportunity to participate in the Mid-America Economic Development Council/Indiana Economic Development Association joint Best Practices Conference in Ft. Wayne, IN. It was a great conference, well organized, held at an outstanding venue at the Courtyard by Marriot, and attended by 150 economic development folks primarily from the Midwest.

Topics included: Site Development; Talent Attraction; Anchor-Based Economic Development; The New Disruption of Business Site Selection; Target Industry-Based Economic Development; Low Cost, High-Return Economic Development; and Everything Economic Developers Should Know About Entrepreneurship.

So, here are a few of my takeaways from this outstanding conference:

Reversing Population Loss

Loss of population in Indiana is driving a resurgence of downtown development to improve the quality of place. Following a commitment of matching state funds, local public and private entities are undertaking multi-million dollar place-making projects including an investment of $124 million of State of Indiana Funds representing 20% of project cost in three Region Cities: Elkhart, Ft. Wayne, and Evansville. The overall purpose is to promote regionalism, enhance core assets, and actuate the private sector.

Projects include river front restoration, airport renovation, and broadband infrastructure. The biggest shift I noticed was the shift in attitude by community leaders. I heard words like hope and purpose along with ‘we can do this.’ The shift in attitude has been transformational.

Talent Attraction

There were two sessions on talent attraction and retention. “Talent Attraction” looked at the strategies based on the timeframe in which the talent is needed. The 0-6 month strategy is about recruiting those from outside the area with a previous relationship to the area such as place of birth, family connections, alumni, or previous local employers. A 6-24 month timeframe strategy considers transferable skills from former occupations to new careers. The 2-4 year window provides opportunity for technical certification and internships. A 7-10 year timeframe strategy includes advance skill development, while a 10-15 year strategy can include early education and STEM with more of a talent pipeline approach.

The other talent attraction session, “Talent in the Driver Seat,” discussed ways to align workforce and economic development. The majority of people seeking higher education now are “non-traditional” students. This means that higher education is changing the way in which education is being offered such as more “on-demand” classes, on-line instruction, and combinations of low residency with group learning sessions. Align, collaborate, and leverage was the theme of this topic.

Further Trends

Data-driven site selection is reducing the opportunity for local economic development organizations to tell their stories in person. More site location projects are down to one or two locations before local contact is made. Another trend mentioned was the 40-year all time low of business start-ups. It was felt that one reason was that the 20-30 year olds had too much college debt. Also, millennials tend to be “renters” rather than owners. There was also discussion of the use of the visual display of data that is interactive, dynamic, and customized using granularity and micro-websites focused on brand and SEO.

There were many other great sessions and presenters. To take a look at the agenda and the presenters from the conference, click here.