Window on the world

And Auburn to enjoy every day

Photography by Mary A. Markley

Over the past decade, Auburn Mayor Norm Yoder has taken on what he has come to realize is a critically important new job duty. Luckily, he’s not really solely responsible for successfully achieving it.

The goal is clear and simple to describe and no small feat to accomplish.

“You have to have quality of life,” he said. “We must make Auburn a destination place to live not only in northeast Indiana but also the entire country.”

As a long-serving mayor, he has always been involved in economic development work for his city. His understanding of his role as mayor has come into focus over the past decade differently, he said, as he realized Auburn is supported by business development efforts by the state, the northeast Indiana regional organization and DeKalb County in addition to what Auburn has always done on its own.

“My responsibility as mayor is to close the deal on the business development side,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time out in the field. As important or more important today is to create Auburn as a nice place to locate.”

Businesses considering cities as new locations want to know they can succeed there, he said. They want broadband Internet access, which Auburn has thanks to the city’s Auburn Essential Services. Many want railroad access, which Auburn has, and they want a livable, welcoming community where their executives and managers will be happy and where they can find workers with the necessary skills.

“That’s what I picture as my job,” he said, “not necessarily to go out and beat the bushes any more. It’s a little more complicated, and I have been slow to evolve in that, but I ask myself: What do I have the power to do?”

Yoder might have a superpower when it comes to making Auburn a livable, welcoming community, a very simple but effective one. He welcomes people who want to help.

“We’re a community that if people want to get involved, we encourage it,” he said. “I tell people I have everything but money.”

And remarkable things happen, just as they always have in Auburn. It is, after all, where families named Eckhart and Riecke gave the money for a better library than Andrew Carnegie would have given them and a great park decades ago. And where a group of women raised $80,000 in a month to bring the first exhibit of larger-than-life statues to downtown Auburn years ago, triggering a renaissance that continues today.

This summer, thanks to two philanthropic families, Yoder said, a cultural park is under construction on Seventh Street downtown and the former Greenhurst golf course is being renovated into a walking and hiking park. Downtown is packed with activities week after week, as are the city parks and its museums.

Those museums are prime factors in Auburn’s equation as it pursues growth. Not every mayor of a city of almost 14,000 people can honestly say people from around the world are familiar with it because they visit there all the time. Yoder can.

“What does Auburn have to put it on the world stage? Our heritage,” he said. “It happens that we are the birthplace of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Company. Visitors come from all over the world to attend our museum. It is the class of automobile museums in the world.

“Each Labor Day we have a festival that draws people from all over the country and the world. That’s our window on the world.”

Couple that world-famous Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum (in the gorgeous Art Deco former headquarters of the car company) with the related museums in town, and you have an automobile fan’s dream vacation.

Heritage, no matter how proud or well presented, is not the end of Auburn’s story.

“We celebrate our past, we live in the present, and we prepare for the future,” Yoder said.

“What keeps us going day-to-day is the people who live here have always been inventive and hard-working, and we have a solid manufacturing base that dates back to the days of the Auburn automobile.

“People buy what we make here.”

Today, Auburn has a foundry and factories making glass, foam products, clutches for trucks and rubber products for the automotive industry, plus several stamping plants for auto companies, multiple machine shops for the orthopedic industry and a research and development facility for the automotive industry, he said. More manufacturing companies are in DeKalb County outside the city limits.

“They stay where they are successful and they feel wanted,” he said, noting some of the companies have been in Auburn for about a century.

It’s today’s success that matters and tomorrow’s success that counts the most, though, and one of those “people wanting to get involved” projects is cresting a wave that carries a lot of future-oriented energy for the town.

It’s the Indiana Hometown Collaboration Initiative, itself a collaborative initiative of the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Ball State University and Purdue University. The brainchild of Jeremiah Otis, Natalie DeWitt and Sara Payne, who are “the heart and soul” of Auburn’s work on the project, Yoder said, the project has completed the information-gathering phase and is working on choosing a local project to implement. The state designed the program to help smaller communities capitalize on existing assets and grow by bringing in new leaders and guiding and empowering them to design and implement a project for lasting community impact.

Auburn was accepted into the second round of the program last year, and so far, Yoder said, “we blew away the people who have done it before.” More than 1,100 people responded to Auburn’s information-gathering survey, double any previous response rate. More than 200 people came to the dinner meeting to talk about the community’s future. Other dinner meetings elsewhere had never attracted more than 60, he said, “which isn’t bad for a city of 13,000-14,000 residents.”

Yoder is involved in the process as a committee member, but he sees the people he calls young as its leaders, and he is interested to learn which of the program’s three pillars – leadership development, economic development or quality of life – is chosen to become the focus of Auburn’s project. Inevitably, any project will involve all three aspects of building Auburn’s future, which is exactly what everyone involved wants.

For more information about the Hometown Collaboration Initiative, go to indianahciorg. The results of the information-gathering phase are available online at indianahci.org/downloads/auburn/auburn-county-survey-report.pdf.

First appeared in the July 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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