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Together We Mover Further Faster

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

No idea could be more important for northeast Indiana. Working together is key to our current and future success as a region, and we should not take this spirit of regionalism and collaboration lightly, as it took years of hard work to build and has proven to be a distinctive and competitive advantage to our economic growth.

“I see no signs that this will work in northeast Indiana,” was the rather terse response I said to my wife in the fall of 2006. Her question? After almost a year of weekly commutes to Fort Wayne from Fishers, she rightly asked, “Is this the real deal, or are we just passing time?” That was then.

But now, regional economic development is working in the 11 counties of northeast Indiana in a way I didn’t think was possible or could even imagine. The essential ingredient in the region’s success is collaboration. It is what differentiates our region on many levels. It is what makes us distinctive and powerful. Northeast Indiana is especially strong because the 11 counties are able to join our collective strengths to cultivate a region that’s both diverse and unified.

As a region, we understand the contributions of many working together trumps those of an individual every time. We count on each other and value our team spirit. We leverage our ability to collaborate to create meaningful partnerships. Although collaboration has numerous benefits like building trust, breaking down barriers and building stronger relationships, it is not a silver bullet.

Collaboration requires intentional behaviors practiced consistently and applied with patience and persistence. Its positive benefits may not be direct or immediate, because true collaboration doesn’t just happen, regardless of the sincerity of our intentions. Otis White is the president of Civic Strategies, Inc., a collaborative and strategic planning firm that works with cities and civic organizations. In his 2014 essay How Collaboration Happens, White said the basic ingredients to achieve conditions necessary for collaboration are understanding, trust and transparency between participants.

If these conditions are in place, White insisted collaboration only occurs when the partners share an opportunity or challenge of mutual interest. In my favorite form, it looks like this:

(Und + Tru + Tra) + MI = Collaboration.

I am an engineer by training and was captivated by White’s simple equation to explain the fundamentals of collaboration. But, it did not take long for me to realize that the fiercely independent counties of northeast Indiana would require a pervasive decline in healthy economic development and then a steady treatment of collaborative medicine to achieve the mutually desired outcome for increased of prosperity and long-term economic growth.

Collaboration is not as simple as having the correct formula and mathematical equation. It is difficult, but with understanding, trust and transparency directed towards a worthy challenge, collaboration can achieve remarkable progress, not otherwise possible.

It was 2006 when we began, to build a region through collaboration 40 individuals with economic development interests throughout the region gathered to “work together” on economic development issues. But, this informal gathering of private entities, public utilities and chambers of commerce with economic development responsibilities served as a forum to protect individual interests rather than to work together to share best practices, work to meet the needs of the region and win deals that would benefit everyone.

More than a decade later, the council of Local Economic Development Organization (LEDO) Council now meets monthly to explore common interests and to put forth the competitive advantage that northeast Indiana as a single entity offers. A Code of Ethics guides the Council’s behaviors and decisions, allowing the best interests of the region, collectively, to be prioritized.

In 2012, a regional benchmarking trip to Denver allowed us to observe the strength of a Mayors Caucus at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation; it is one of the strongest performing city and regional economies in the country. After the visit, our regional mayors and commissioners were inspired to replicate the effectiveness of the Denver Caucus through the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus of Northeast Indiana. As Mayor Norm Yoder from Auburn said, “This is the one place in Indiana where the mayors and commissioners regularly talk with each other and not at each other.”

Today, the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus meets monthly to find areas of common interest between our counties and cities. They speak with one voice on state matters of policy and legislative priority. These 16 mayors and 33 commissioners formed the largest voting body in Indiana as part of the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA). We often tout the strength of the 24 Road to One Million quality of place projects; but, the heart of these projects was the leadership and collaboration of the caucus, as well as the region’s economic development professionals.

These leaders formed the RDA by leading county council members to vote in favor of joining forces to win a $42 million grant from Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative. It is because of the collaborative relationships and focus of the caucus that the current $258 million for regional projects is causing economic and population growth in northeast Indiana and not some other of region of the state.

We are now looking to build additional strengths in regional collaboration with the Northeast Indiana Colleges and Universities Network. Comprised of 10 institutions of higher education, these leaders work together to advance common interests and better connect to the region’s employers. This group of presidents and chancellors have a direct hand in business development projects, including Shindigz and Rural Sourcing Inc. These regional education leaders understand the benefits of collaboration with each other as well as with various economic development partners to best serve their students and regional employers.

The building of trust and collaboration is messy and difficult. But, the biggest steps forward are made when difficult challenges are confronted, and we work through them together, even when we disagree. It is when we disagree, but double-down on our commitment to collaboration that we become stronger after we meet and exceed each challenge.

We all know great communities aren’t based on great buildings. Great communities are built by great people who are committed to confronting challenges and working to resolve issues in order to create a better future for the next generation. None of northeast Indiana’s communities could do this in isolation. It is with this belief that numerous organizations routinely work collaboratively on projects of mutual interest. If for no other reason, these projects serve as evidence of our ongoing commitment to understand, build trust and create transparency between private, public and not-for-profit entities.

The collaborative relationships between employers, Northeast Indiana Works, the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, local economic development professionals, legislators, superintendents of K12 education, higher education leaders and the region’s tourism leaders have completely transformed the region’s ability to confront and solve significant problems that could challenge future economic growth. The fact is collaboration matters when we are confronting challenges in such magnitude and complexity that leave the achievement of them unattainable by individuals or single entities.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s goals for 2030 will not be attained on our current trajectory, and they certainly will not be achieved, without collaboration. And there is no doubt that there are significant challenges that will test our commitment to working together as a region.

The challenges will require tough decisions on potentially divisive issues as well as the disbursement of very limited financial resources. If we choose not to work collaboratively to confront the issues of population growth, workforce readiness, adequate availability of housing, broadband availability and transportation infrastructure, then we all will have to live with the results – other cities and regions will solve these issues and take our place within the national and international economic marketplace.

We cannot pat ourselves on our collective back for our ability to collaborate nor can we rest on the laurels of our previous accomplishments. We must continue to collectively build upon the foundation of the trust developed through collaboration to continue to go faster and further together.

 

John Sampson is the president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, neindiana.com

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