Growth from within
June 23, 2014
Tim Ehlerding, Wells County’s economic development director, wants to help existing companies expand and grow
By MARK MILLER
The proverbial three-legged stool is a popular metaphor, used in a variety of applications to illustrate a wide variety of circumstances, from how companies work to how crises develop. But it also is a perfect fit for how the business of economic development is being approached in Wells County.
Tim Ehlerding, nearing his second anniversary at the helm of the Wells County Economic Development Corp., might stress the importance of one leg over another, but emphasizes that all three are necessary to support the efforts.
“Our education efforts and business retention and development are really key right now,” Ehlerding says. “Finding and developing new businesses to come to Wells County is important, too. Just not quite as important as the others.”
That being said, the county recently made one of the more aggressive moves in attracting new business in several years, an initiative that made news throughout the state and continues to generate inquiries to Ehlerding’s office.
On May 5, ground was officially broken for a 45,000 square foot industrial building at the northern edge of the Bluffton-Decker Industrial Park. Through a partnership of local developers Bob and Rob Troxel, the county, the city and the EDC, the “spec” (short for “speculative”) building should be ready for occupancy in six to eight months.
“I believe we will fill it relatively quickly,” Ehlerding says. “We’re already getting some pretty cool inquiries, wanting to know the status.”
He explains that companies looking to relocate or open a new plant used to look two years out, so that having buildings ready for occupancy was not a critical issue for communities. Those companies now put those decisions off as long as possible, so that when they make the decision to move, communities that have the right buildings “go to the front of the line.” Ehlerding says.
“This was a pretty aggressive move, but I think the right one,” he adds.
The county also has more than 100 acres that are certified as “Shovel Ready,” meaning that all preliminary soil tests and zoning requirements have been met, enabling a company to move quickly to build a new industrial building.
In October 2013, Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellsperman delivered special recognition to the county for these efforts.
However, most of Ehlerding’s time and efforts are focused on making sure that current Wells County employers have everything they need to not just remain in business, but to expand and grow. And that is where the best results in economic development efforts are found as well. Ehlerding noted the nearly 200 new jobs announced in just the past two months at existing Wells County companies that are expanding.
One good example of those efforts — although it will not result in any new jobs immediately — was the announcement in May that Linder Oil will expand its operations in Ossian, a process that Ehlerding says began about a year ago.
“As their customer base grew and expanded, the importance of railroad service became more attractive and necessary for them to grow,” Ehlerding relates. He introduced company executives to officials from Norfolk and Southern, which operates the very busy north-south line through Ossian and the county. As those talks proceeded, it became clear that the railroad would only allow one additional spur in the park. Since the EDC has an option on about 110 acres for future development, Ehlerding’s office worked with Linder and Norfolk Southern to find a win-win solution that would give Linder sufficient space for a spur and tank-car storage while allowing the remaining acres to Linder’s north access to rail service.
The final arrangement, with Linder investing $350,000, included $37,000 from the County Economic Development Income Tax funds of the county and Ossian to purchase enough land and an additional 16 feet of railway in order to provide that access for future development.
“The community wins in a huge way in this,” Ehlerding explains. While those 110 acres are yet to be certified as “shovel ready,” when they are, they will also be what Ehlerding terms as “rail ready.
“And that is becoming increasingly more important to companies that they have access to rail service,” he adds.
The efforts to make the Ossian Industrial Park a Tax Increment Finance District is also an important initiative. (See story on page 11.)
As critical as all of those efforts are to the economic future and well being of the Wells County, Ehlerding quickly points out that the education of the workforce “is the most important aspect of what we’re doing here.”
Today’s industries do not need more workers with the same skills, he says. “They need workers with more skills. There’s more automation; (workers) are operating multi-million-dollar machines that take new skills.”
He adds that the biggest question prospects ask, not just here but all across the nation, is: Does your community have skilled workers? “They will even ask for some proof that we can provide them with workers with the skills they will need,” he says.
In order to address this, Ehlerding began a series of industrial maintenance classes, designed to take “good, dependable workers without specific industrial skills” and put them through a six-month program “that exposes them to a wide array of industrial mechanics,” he explains.
The third class will begin in late June. At least eight Wells County businesses will send workers to this class, along with others from Adams County.
“This has been a joint effort with Adams County,” Ehlerding explains, adding that it is fully funded by WorkOne and the instructors are provided by Ivy Tech. The classes have been so popular that Ehlerding thinks “we may have to turn some people away” from this next series.
The Wells County EDC will also host two industrial summer camps this year. A guitar building camp is in its second year, after “a very successful” first year, Ehlerding says. Middle and high school students will design and build their own guitars and will finish the camp with a “jam session” at Sweetwater recording studios in Fort Wayne.“This is part of our efforts to introduce students to manufacturing as a career,” Ehlerding said.
This summer’s new camp is a robotics camp, in which teams of students will build robots. “This camp is probably more oriented to the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines,” he said, “while the guitar class is a little more hands-on.”
The guitar camp is made possible by the collaboration of Ivy Tech, Sweetwater Sound, the Wells County Foundation, Southern Wells High School and Ehlerding’s office. Ivy Tech and the foundation are also involved in the robotics camp, along with the Wells County 4-H and the Purdue Extension office.
Ehlerding would also like to organize a “Health Care Camp” to expose students to careers in that field, “probably targeted mostly to the nursing profession. It’s just a concept at this point but I’d like to get one going next year.”
He also sees a need for what he terms “targeted training.” He has put together a program to assist local employer First Fleet in finding truck drivers to service Peyton’s Northern and other industries. The program offers funded training to obtain CDL licenses. “There is a need for welders right now as well,” he says. “We’re working on this.”
He has developed a good working rapport with the federally-funded WorkOne program. “They’re interesting in funding all kinds of training,” he explains. “We’re working on establishing a Microsoft Certification program for example; there are many IT (Information Technology) needs out there.”
All of these efforts, Ehlerding believes, points toward a bright future for the county. “It’s an exciting time to be in Wells County,” he says enthusiastically, standing — metaphorically — on his three-legged soapbox.