When Dubois Strong President Ed Cole took over the county’s economic development group in October 2014, it was on the heels of a rethink.
Cole said the organization, about a year earlier, decided to focus on workforce development, specifically increasing the amount of new workers in Dubois County. Tied with Hamilton County at 3.9 percent for the lowest unemployment rate in Indiana, Dubois County has more jobs than people and thus Dubois Strong’s main focus has been on filling jobs, though the organization has led other initiatives and released a housing study last summer that found a need for more attractive, affordable housing options.
“If you bring new companies, then you bring in new investments. You bring in new companies, you bring in new jobs, which is a great model,” Cole said. “The problem is that model doesn’t make any sense for us because we had such low unemployment and tremendous employers.”
Tasked with a unique situation, Dubois Strong has focused on recruiting workers from Illinois, Kentucky and other parts of Indiana with higher unemployment rates. The group will host a lunchtime economic development roundtable Tuesday afternoon at VUJC; that event will focus on tax increment financing, tax abatement and state incentives, all of which are also part of Dubois Strong’s area of exploration.
On the job front, Dubois County Commissioner President Larry Vollmer said he would like to see Dubois Strong focus more on attracting and filling higher-paying jobs than entry-level positions. He added that overall he’s been pleased with the economic development group’s work since the Dubois County Area Development Corp. was rebranded Dubois Strong in 2012.
“Maybe they ought to put more emphasis on better-paying jobs. Low-paying jobs are better than nothing I guess,” Vollmer said. “But still, high-paying jobs are more of what I think Dubois County would need.”
Cole said Dubois Strong hopes to explore higher-paying jobs in the future, but added that when he’s talked to local employers they’ve said the priority should be filling entry-level jobs. Cole said that with the higher-paying jobs, the marketing has to be more specific, so it made more sense to Cole to craft a campaign for entry-level jobs before shaping that campaign for the top-paying positions.
“It’s one thing we’ve had an internal concern about,” Cole said of Vollmer’s idea. “If you’re looking toward increasing the workforce population, how granular do you want to be? Or do you want to craft a general message? If we go too general, chasing the data, do we need to be more focused?”
The county is in the second and final year of an agreement that has provided Dubois Strong with $200,000 in each of those years, said County Deputy Auditor Sandy Morton. The council will decide the future funding in August during its annual budget meeting.
Vollmer, as a commissioner, will not decide on that funding. However, he did suggest that a truck driving training class at VUJC could help Dubois Strong’s cause. Cole pitched the class to the county in early 2015, but the class is still without an instructor. Vollmer sees the class as a way to help fill truck driving positions.
“I’m not the council, but I think a little more could be done,” Vollmer said. “And I’m not just saying jobs. If that truck driving training would get off the ground, that would be a big plus for Dubois Strong to get more money. … I don’t want to say what the council is going to do, but truck driving has been a pretty good paying job. If they could get that going, it would be a feather in their hat.”
Dubois County Council President Greg Kendall said he’s been pleased with Dubois Strong’s work, and did speak to some of the concerns that people may have with the county’s economic group.
“There’s always been controversy at any time when you have taxpayers dollars going to this or that, because some people don’t think we need to be spending money in that direction. But I think in order to get people to come here, they have to know that we are wanting them here,” Kendall said. “If we don’t have somebody like Dubois Strong doing that leg work, then who’s going to do it?”
Kendall added that he couldn’t speak for the entire council or how they will vote on future funding decisions. But he said some sort of county funding should continue.
“It’s really hard to say because of how our funding level will be. There might have to be more options to look at to fund Dubois Strong,” Kendall said. “At this point, I don’t know what those options might be. … It’s hard to say how the other people would feel about those things. My personal feeling at this point is that I’m still in favor of funding them and hoping we can create a lot more new jobs and make this a better place for everybody to get jobs and to live.”
Cole is thankful for the county support and said he’s particularly proud of Dubois Strong’s housing study. The study hasn’t led to any new developments, but he believes it did affirm much of what local residents thought and made it easier for developments such as Hunters Crossing in Huntingburg to become finalized.
At this point, he added, he thinks county funding is still needed — at least until Dubois Strong can boost its private funding.
“We’ve been working logically to increase our private funding,” Cole said. “But we’re not there as much as we’d like and we still depend on the county to have that public-private partnership with us.”