Experts Question County’s Growth Strategy – The Daily Reporter
GREENFIELD – Two experts who recently visited Hancock County gave local officials a dose of unconventional wisdom on economic development and job growth.
The center of their argument was that communities that hope to grow and improve should focus on attracting residents by providing improvements in quality of life, not on attracting jobs, especially jobs. that might not last.
“Jobs follow people,” said David Terrell, director of the Indiana Communities Institute at Ball State University. “People don’t follow jobs.”
Commissioner Bill Spalding invited Terrell and Michael Hicks, professor of economics at Ball State and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research, to speak with local officials. Terrell recently spoke at a workshop hosted by the Hancock County Community Foundation, and Spalding wanted his colleagues on Commissioners Council and County Council to hear more of what he had to say.
Economists told local officials present at the discussion, including two commissioners and most county council members, that the evidence shows that only around 10% of people have moved to their current area of residence due to a job. Instead, most people moved because they wanted better housing, parks and trails, civic engagement, proximity to a big city, or – the most important factor, according to studies – to good schools.
“Hancock County is fortunate to have quality schools at all levels,” Terrell said. “And there is an advantage to being near downtown Indianapolis. You don’t have to have it all.
Terrell said he has told many communities that they should upgrade their schools to the Hancock County corporate level if they are to have population growth. This is the asset the county should focus on, economists said, without attracting more jobs.
“That one thing you have sets you apart from all the other places in Indiana,” Terrell said.
The discussion added weight to a discussion county officials have had for months about their approach to economic growth and how they should approach requests for tax breaks. Several officials want to do much less for companies looking to establish sites in Hancock County, arguing that tax breaks and the proliferation of warehousing jobs with companies like Amazon and Walmart are hurting the community.
“We have jobs that are sticking out our ears,” County Council member Kent Fisk said at the meeting. “We don’t need jobs anymore.
Hicks said his job as an economist is to examine the factors that encourage businesses and people to relocate. He said that since the decline of manufacturing in the United States, there is an ever-increasing investment of capital needed to create jobs. Spending on a business that could have created 100 jobs in the 1950s will only create a handful. Most jobs in the economy today, he said, fall into two categories: jobs that can be located anywhere and jobs that can be located anywhere there are customers.
Terrell said many jobs today, especially those that don’t pay well, are vulnerable to three trends: automation, offshoring and urbanization. In other words, jobs can be replaced by machines, sent to another country, or relocated to a big city.
Automation, Terrell said, is of particular concern to the jobs Hancock County attracts in warehousing and manufacturing.
“Whatever you’re getting right now, they’re all vulnerable to automation,” he said. “Even in the, in quotes, ‘good’ counties, there is a huge vulnerability to this.”
Hicks noted that automation usually doesn’t happen because new technology becomes available. Instead, it’s because companies decide that the technology is worth the cost compared to hiring workers.
“We’re really bad at predicting when (automation will happen), but we’re not talking about technology that isn’t available,” he said. “We are talking about technological costs. “
Many county officials were receptive to what Hicks and Terrell had to say, especially those who criticized the development and the cuts.
“I think we’ve already started looking at all of these different things, and I think we need to start demanding more from these developers,” County Council member Robin Lowder said. “I think we need to stop and readjust and look at some things, and start demanding a lot more.”
County Council Chairman Bill Bolander said council members all agree something needs to change, although they might disagree on how much the process should be changed.
Spalding said he hoped his official colleagues would take into account what speakers had to say as they continued their discussions on economic development.
“I think it’s important with where we’re at right now, even as we’re growing up, people want to come here, to really ask these important questions, about what (businesses) can do for our community, and for we should not be afraid to let agreements go through which will not benefit everyone here in this county, ”he declared.
Hicks said next steps for Hancock County should include more discussions about the future of the community. Part of that may come from the county’s ongoing comprehensive plan process, which he says should involve speaking to people from all demographic groups.
“None of the above is straightforward,” he said. “But for those who are going to be working with businesses on economic development, they need community feedback, and community feedback needs to be more than just a vote.”