Paul W. Barada
Since the recent announcement that John McCane has been hired as the new Director or our ECDC, I’ve been giving the decision some thought. Upon reflection, I think choosing John to head local economic development efforts is a very smart move. It will be a challenging job, but I can’t imagine it being otherwise for any economic development director anywhere. On the other hand, John has a solid grasp of the interrelationship between all the major stakeholders: the city, the county, the Chamber, the school corporation, and the local healthcare delivery system, just to mention some of the major players that come readily to mind.
More significantly, John has served in government at both the local and state level, he’s well connected politically, and he’s likely to stay here over the long term. That means, among other things, we won’t be looking for another director in a year or two. So, on balance, I’m not sure there’s anyone else who has more potential to do a good job for the whole community than John McCane. I say that based, at least in part, on my own experiences over the years dealing with the whole topic of economic development.
You see, I think I know perfectly well what the goal of economic development has to be for Rush County, Indiana. Put in simplest terms, we need more people and families living in this county. Since at least the end of World War II, the population of this country has been slowly, but steadily, declining. Now, obviously, there’s more to increasing the number of people living in this county than just saying we have a nice place in which to live. We need job opportunities for people who have gone on to vocational school or college and would come back here if there were jobs available. This, in turn, means working to make this community as attractive as possible for new businesses involved in fields like advanced manufacturing, the life sciences, the production of medical diagnostic equipment and service businesses, all of which require employees with more than just a high school education. But to be successful at that, we need more upscale housing available for the families whom we want to move here to fill the jobs in the occupations I just mentioned. If this community is going to survive, we require more people living here; more kids attending our schools and more people who will expect outstanding healthcare facilities, recreational opportunities, entertainment options, and a broader array of local shopping outlets.
The first step, obviously, is new job creation. People will follow the availability of new jobs. But, at the same time, we have to be ready with a broader offering of up-scale housing when the demand for better housing is created by people filling the new jobs. What we do not want, at least in my opinion, is people who will simply commute back and forth from surrounding counties, but who won’t move here. If that should happen, this county will not grow; we’ll just have more traffic in the morning and evening as people enter and then leave the county with their paychecks in their pockets. That scenario won’t help the local economy; it won’t increase the number of students in our school system or the demand for all the rest of the services we used to have, but have faded away along with the people who used to live here. I cannot stress this enough; we need more people living in Rush County! That is the key to everything.
Furthermore, the need for a turnaround in population has to be a commonly shared vision by all the key stakeholders: city and county government, the school corporation, the healthcare system, the Chamber of Commerce, and, obviously, the ECDC. Unless everybody is on the same page in terms of what economic development means, John McCane is going to have an uphill battle on his hands. There just cannot be different visions of what economic development means if John is to have any hope of success in his new position.
It would not be unreasonable, at least in my opinion, to have a goal of attracting a thousand new people to Rush County over the next five years. If you figure four people in the average family, that would mean 250 new families. At least as far as the school system is concerned, that would be 500 new school children presumably scattered throughout the county and scattered throughout grades K through 12. It would also mean the construction of at least 200 new homes. And for those concerned about the loss of farmland to single family housing, if all 200 homes were built on half-acre lots, which would be a very generous sized lot, that’s two houses per acre for a total of a mere 100 acres dedicated to housing developments around the county. Considering there are more than 400 square miles of land in Rush County, devoting 100 more acres to housing is not going to diminish crop land in any noticeable way. Besides, even if it did, we need those new families living here, sending their kids to our schools, paying local taxes, buying new homes, putting their money in our banks, buying goods and services from our businesses, and, hopefully, insisting on more local entertainment opportunities like, oh, perhaps a movie theater! By default, most new home construction would be in or adjacent to those communities in the county with municipal water and sewer systems already in place.
In conclusion, it seems clear that John McCane has accepted what will be a challenging job. Can he succeed at it? Sure he can, but the first thing he has to do is make sure that the major stakeholders are all willing to sing the same song from the economic development hymnal.
That’s -30- for this week.