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Meeting at Crane focuses on region's economic future

  • March 7, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Lauren Slavin 

The military, business, academic and nonprofit leaders tasked with creating a unified southwest-central Indiana met Friday afternoon to share how they will use a $42 million grant to change the educational and economic landscape of that region.

In December, Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded three grants totaling $42 million to the recently formed nonprofit Regional Opportunity Initiatives Inc., the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership Foundation and the Indiana University Foundation.

The grant funding will support research, educational and workforce development initiatives in Monroe and 10 southwest-central Indiana counties with a goal of building successful industries that attract and retain talented employees, as well as prepare residents of those counties to enter a growing job market.

“The only way we can really do that right is if we have a quality of life and we have education and a workforce that allows us to do that,” said Tina Peterson, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, and interim CEO of Regional Opportunity Initiatives.

The 11-county region, which also includes Brown, Lawrence, Greene and Owen counties, has strong assets in the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, national security and defense sectors. Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division, in Martin County, is the third largest naval base in the world. Half of Cook’s workforce lives in the region, said Pete Yonkman, president of Cook Group Inc.

And over the course of two years of researching this area, stakeholders have discovered that across 14 industry sectors, there is the potential for 12,000 to 15,000 new jobs to be available in the next five years, Peterson said.

However, in rural Indiana, “once the backbone of our state, now in many places there are real challenges,” said Gerry Dick, host of Inside INdiana Business, and a panel moderator at Friday’s event.

The IU Foundation will use a $122,600 Lily Endowment grant to determine if establishing a university rural center could help identify how rural counties are thriving and struggling. Graduate students in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs are currently evaluating how opportunities similar to the Lily Endowment grants have stimulated areas similar to the 11-county region.

“There are issues in rural communities that are unique to those communities,” said Bill Stephan, vice president for engagement at IU.

Two major issues, which Peterson called the “Achilles heel” of the region, are education and workforce development. The 27 school corporations in the 11-county region have an average graduation rate of 93 percent. Many of these students, however, fail to obtain a degree beyond their high school diploma.

Those students who do go on to graduate from IU, Ivy Tech or other universities often don’t return to start careers in southwest-central Indiana. And companies like Cook are trying to hire from a current labor force that is filled with job seekers who don’t have high school degrees.

“They’re having to exclude people who would otherwise qualify, because they don’t have a high school diploma,” Yonkman said.

Lilly Endowment’s $25,870,000 grant to the Regional Opportunity Initiatives will allow the nonprofit to shift the region’s educational model to focus on lifelong education, Peterson said. Young adults will be offered “career immersion” programs that allow students to identify their interests and passions before they go into higher education, rather than going to school to discover a career path.

“We have lots and lot of challenges, and we need engineering and technical solutions,” said Capt. Jeffrey “JT” Elder, commander of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division.

The stakeholders hope that a well-qualified workforce will expand technology and manufacturing industries and create a competitive job market. To help these industries collaborate, a $16,225,000 Lilly Endowment grant will allow the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership to develop an Applied Research Institute near the Crane base.

“As I look around Indiana and particularly this region … I see billion-dollar industries coming to this state and this region to solve billion-dollar challenges time and time again,” said Ian Steff, an applied research institute adviser for the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership. “The people you will see coming into this region to leverage those assets and solve those challenges will be like no other.”