Officials told top economic priority is developer retention
J.C. Lyell, Staff Writer, [email protected]
About two dozen community leaders gathered Thursday evening to learn about economic development in a regional context. The Harrison County Economic Development Corp. hosted a “State of Economic Development” discussion led by Jim Plump, executive director of the Jackson County Industrial Development Corp., at the Harrison County Government Center in Corydon.
Plump, who has worked in his role with the JCIDC since its inception in 1984, is an Indiana native and University of Evansville graduate. He served as president of the Indiana Economic Development Association in 1999 and was named Seymour’s “Citizen of the Year” in 2001 for his civic activities.
Plump began the discussion by praising Harrison County’s new designation as an ACT Work-Ready Community. That accolade was earned in August, thanks to an initiative by the HCEDC and South Harrison Community School Corp., who promoted The ACT’s career-readiness exam to present and future members of the county’s workforce in an effort to add qualifications to students’ and workers’ resumés.
“Let me tell you; that’s a big deal,” Plump said.
He said with only a 3% unemployment rate in the county, potential employers will always ask, “Where am I going to find employees?” before choosing to develop in Harrison County. Now, the HCEDC can point them to the certified workforce development program among the county’s other offerings.
Plump said in today’s economy it’s all about retaining, rather than recruiting, industry.
He said headlines about new contracts and developments are great, but retention and expansion of existing businesses, while not as glamorous, are just as important.
“I cannot stress this enough,” Plump said. “That is your top priority: to keep what you have.”
That could reverse quickly, however, he said, if trends change and the unemployment rate surges back up.
“I seem to recall in 2007 we were cruising along with pretty low unemployment and then the bottom fell out,” he said.
With the potential for changes in future regulations and economic conditions in mind, Plump’s message centered around the idea of being competitive while maximizing collaboration between counties in the area.
This was the goal when the South Central Indiana Economic Development Group was founded in 2001. Darrell Voelker, executive director of the Harrison County EDC, is currently president of the group, which encompasses 10 counties: Bartholomew, Clark, Decatur, Floyd, Harrison, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Scott and Washington.
Plump, who previously served as the SCIED group president as well, said when a company’s site selectors examine a location, they’re not looking at just the town, city or county’s borders; they’re looking at the region from which their employees would potentially come.
“We’re friendly rivals. We get along, but we’re going to compete,” he said. “But, when that company decides (to develop in the region), we’re going to help them out.”
When it comes to attracting new businesses, Plump said economic development corporations have two main tools: abatements (tax reductions) and TIFs (tax-increment financing deals).
Harrison County historically has not offered TIFs because of its access to riverboat gaming funds, meaning abatements are the HCEDC’s most powerful incentive with which to draw in new businesses.
Plump acknowledged there is a general public distaste for abatements because of the perceived “special treatment” their recipients get.
“At the end of the day, do I like tax abatements? No,” he said. “But, if another community is doing it, then I’m going to do it because you have to be competitive and it gets (a business’) attention.”
He said companies often are looking at massive upfront costs when building on a new site. For the first year or two, money is only going out for most businesses, so anything the community can do to alleviate the start-up costs will help attract businesses.
Plump said as any county develops, there will be some who complain about expansion and the steps taken to facilitate it. These same people, he said, will later complain about a lack of development if they get their way.
“You’re going to have your naysayers, but leave the over there to hang out with the naysayers and get your positive people together,” he said.