Embracing the Changing Face of Economic Development

Posey County Economic Development Partnership

With goals that include keeping pace with the growth of technology, improving residential and development opportunities, and maintaining excellent quality of life in the community, Indiana’s Posey County Economic Development Partnership is an ever-evolving organization designed to help its diverse business and community members have a voice and a prosperous future.

The Posey County Economic Development Partnership started in 2006, developed bylaws the following year, then created a formal partnership of private sector businesses and community members, followed by governmental and public entities. Today, the organization remains a 50/50 public private partnership.

“The face of Posey County has evolved from 2008 to what we are focusing on and paying attention to now, which I would expect it to,” explains Executive Director Jenna Richardt. “If your partnership doesn’t evolve, then you’re not really doing anything and not going anywhere.”

With a 40-person board at present, the organization works to ensure it has businesses and community members that are representative of the large, rural county,

“We have government officials, presidents of town councils, and all different kinds of people from the north end all the way down to the south end that are representative of the whole county,” says Richardt. “Posey County is made up of several companies, some of which are Fortune 500 and international, advanced manufacturing companies, but we also have mom and pop, locally owned small businesses that are representative of the county as well.”

It’s very important, she says, to ensure diversity is represented on the board so everyone has a voice and the organization can discover what’s working well and what barriers exist across the spectrum. And while the organization continues to work on bringing in new businesses, Richardt says the focus has evolved over the years to accommodate and reflect what’s happening both in the county and nationwide.

“Where you see the changing face is that we have to compensate a little bit and adapt to the ever-changing market that we’re in,” she says. “Instead of focusing on bringing in new business and bringing in more jobs, which we continue to do — we don’t ever stop doing that — our focus is on things like workforce development and quality of life initiatives. If you bring in big business and you bring in jobs, now you need to complement that with quality of life.”

The main focus now, she says, is putting intentional focus on initiatives to sustain those businesses once they’re brought in, focusing on workforce development and the vital relationships forged with Posey County’s two school districts.

Posey County is situated in the southwest Indiana region, with access to the University of Southern Indiana, the University of Evansville, a private career college, and Ivy Tech Community College, all of which have a close working relationship with the organization, providing invaluable resources in numerous areas.

“I think that’s important on a regional level, because it’s not necessarily a competition at this point,” Richardt says of the relationships. “It’s about all of us working together on how can USI and Ivy Tech and UE help us with all these little pieces that will essentially build workforce development.”

One of the organization’s most popular and invaluable education-based initiatives is the annual Tour of Opportunity, an event that allows high school sophomores to tour area industries and learn what job skills are required, all while seeing firsthand what companies and businesses thrive in their own community. “Posey County is not the only one that does it, but we spend the whole year doing it right,” says Richardt. “I’m very proud because a lot of areas do it, but we’ve been looked at as a county that’s kind of built the ideal Tour of Opportunity here.”

The businesses involved are engaging and on board, she says of the event, now in its fourth year, which sees more than 260 students, 50 volunteers, 19 businesses, eight school buses and four occupational tracks taking part this year. Students spend the day touring, observing and partaking in hands-on activities in the areas of advanced manufacturing, transportation services, healthcare and legal. This year’s event was so successful that next year will include even more tracks and participants.

“It’s such a great day that shows our community coming together and working together,” says Richardt. “Students will put on hard hats and walk through plants, see how things are made and view the different innovative services that the companies have. I think that’s really powerful, because as a sophomore, a lot of kids aren’t necessarily thinking about what they’re going to do after college, but that’s the time you need to grab their attention span and get them to focus, so they can start thinking about what education is needed in order to accomplish these things.”

USI and Ivy Tech figure prominently in the event, showing students what courses they offer and working closely with the organization to build services and programs to better meet students’ needs, both technically and with soft skills as well.

“We’re starting to focus more on leadership development and servant leadership and even the basic skills of showing students the importance of arriving to work on time and what you need to wear,” says Richardt. “It’s important to note that we are truly focused on well-rounded programs and well-rounded relationships with both businesses and schools to make sure [students] are as prepared as they can possibly be.”

The Tour itself also gives students the opportunity to see what’s available in their own hometown, something many may not know without a firsthand experience. “It’s kind of a lightbulb moment when you get some students in there saying it’s much more than they thought it was. Companies have done so much with manufacturing when it comes to robotics and innovation; I think students look at some of this as more labour intensive work, but once they get in and see the innovation the companies have and the different skills they work with and how advanced they are, and how much training and education you need to be an operator or an advanced welder, some of that comes down to just being an art.”

This common misconception stems from many high schools in the past pushing for four-year degrees for their graduates, she says, leading students to bypass the manufacturing world.

“There’s room for tech skills and room for tech degrees and vocational programs, and there’s room for four-year degrees in all of these settings,” Richardt says. “I think the conception can be that you don’t need a degree or you just need a technical skill to work in advanced manufacturing, when in reality we have people with advanced degrees, masters degrees, physicists, chemists – all of these degrees are in these places and sometimes they start with that groundwork of understanding the advanced manufacturing from the ground up.”

Richardt has nothing but praise for the hard work and dedication the school board, the colleges and the organization have put into making students’ success a top priority, no matter which path they choose to follow after high school, be it technical training or a four-year degree.

“If we can get them hands-on experience and if we can get be interactive with them, show them other opportunities, I think that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Let them get in there and understand instead of setting them up for failure and sending them off to just do something that might not be what they thought it was.”

While the area schools and businesses continue to grow and flourish, there are some ongoing challenges, including the lack of reliable internet service across the county. Identifiable, progressive steps have been taken to address the issue, including online surveys, aligning ordinances, getting the community on board and submitting necessary applications, and as of right now, Posey County is considered a broadband ready community.

“We know we don’t have great internet in Posey County, but for us to have large businesses, we need to be able to attract people to live here and broadband is a quality of life issue,” says Richardt. “We’ve had people reach out to give testimonials about working from home, or having moved here for kids in school, and because we don’t have good internet, those people’s lives are being directly impacted because kids can’t download their homework and people who work from home aren’t efficient in their jobs, so they’re looking to move.”

Calling this the organization’s “number one challenge,” Richardt praises Posey County’s centrally located position as a gateway to the Midwest and cornerstone for key transportation; these are huge incentives for businesses, with the promise of broadband pushing the county to the next level. “At the end of the day, it’s about money and funding. We set our small steps and goals and keep achieving the goals. It’s important to show our community and businesses that we are taking small steps instead of setting longer, more unrealistic goals and then not being able to hit them.”

It is those goals being routinely met that makes Posey County a continued economic success, bringing in businesses and jobs while continuing to focus on existing companies, workers, employment, wages and growth.

“It’s important that we’re taking care of current businesses by focusing on what we’ve got and making intentional workforce development in the work we’re doing with schools,” Richardt says. “We’re trying to tie everything together so it has a purpose. We want people who work here to live and play here too. We will continue to work on thriving in business, but don’t want to leave behind our quality of life that comes with that.”

Richardt has high praise for individual cities and towns that have done a phenomenal job obtaining grant funding for local beautification projects within the county, including road improvements, sewer projects, walkways and biking paths, and ensuring all amenities are up to date. While there are definite challenges to address in the coming years, she sees nothing but positivity and growth for Posey County, both for businesses and students.

“Posey County is so successful and our region is so successful because we actively choose to work together – and not just in economic development,” she says. “We correspond really well with our Chambers of Commerce, our businesses, our schools, and everyone as a whole in the community, figuring out what is needed to make the region strong.”

Whether it’s business owners, government officials or community members, no one hesitates to come to the table to discuss real issues and how to address them as a region, supportively rather than standing alone, she says. “When I need someone to be involved, these people raise their hands and show up to be involved. We’re strong and will continue to thrive.”

June 2, 2020, 2:21 AM EDT