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NOTIONS: Hailing the hare in the land of the tepid tortoise

July 10, 2006

I was going to play smart aleck this week. I was going to write in hick dialect. I was going to lambaste us Hoosiers over our stubborn adherence to the status quo, our penchant to take things slow, our preference for partisanship, our pooh-poohing of progress and our bull-headed gumption to go it alone in a global economy.

Then news broke that Indiana has the highest high school dropout rate in America. So I figured that for two reasons, I'd better skip the sarcasm: (A) Too many of us wouldn't get it; and (B) this stuff is more sad than humorous.

Back in March, The Indianapolis Star published the results of a public opinion poll showing that 51 percent of all Hoosiers surveyed thought Gov. Mitch Daniels had made too many changes too fast. Only a third said it was good to have lots of change, and 13 percent weren't sure.

Had we been sitting pretty when that survey was conducted-if Indiana's per-capita income ranked closer to Connecticut's; if major employers were clamoring to create jobs for our smartest-in-America workers; if small-business growth were mushrooming; if our students ranked among the best and brightest in the world; if state government were boosting its support of our colleges and universities; if we could get from here to there on smooth-flowing highways; if our air and water were clean; if those living in poverty were well cared for; if we were known for our healthy lifestyles and physically fit people-then resting on our laurels might be lovely.

But we aren't sitting pretty.

We also aren't, despite appearances wrought by our stubbornness, stupid.

So we should, if we'd quit clinging to the status quo and let common sense prevail, realize that if what we've been doing isn't getting us what we want, then we might want to try something else.

And even if we must (given our apparently limited educations), resort to sports clichés to comprehend the need for accelerated change, then surely we've watched enough come-from-behind Pacers and Colts victories to understand that if you're down and seemingly out in the fourth quarter, you don't try something different slowly; you put Reggie Miller on the floor or Peyton Manning on the field and you try something different quickly.

Yet when we try something different in the political arena-be it Mayor Bart Peterson advocating greater efficiencies through government consolidation or Mitch Daniels pushing for more jobs, higher incomes and better transportation through a toll-road lease that taps some foreigner's money-we hear from the masses, "Whoa! Too much change too fast."

A long time ago, when I worked for local government in Fort Wayne, Indiana's slowness and inflexibility contributed to a mighty, though short-lived, economic blow.

Back then, a major truck manufacturer (International Harvester) was hurting. So its managers decided they'd have to close some assembly plants. Toward that end, they put Fort Wayne and Springfield, Ohio-sites of two of those plants-into a bidding war to see which would cough up the most incentives.

Almost immediately, the governor of Ohio put $30 million on the table. Almost as quickly, folks in Indiana state government told Fort Wayne officials not to expect such incentives from them.

So over a long, high-pressure weekend in 1982, Fort Wayne city officials pored through the state budget, looking for dollars that might be reallocated to help. We found them. And the next week, a bipartisan group of Allen County leaders flew to Indianapolis to show state officials how they might, in fact, put up a fiscal fight for Hoosier jobs.

Ultimately, Indiana lost that battle. But the lessons the city and state learned in the process soon thereafter helped lure a General Motors truck plant that's now a mainstay of the northeast Indiana economy.

Fast forward 24 years.

The Honda Motor Co., a phenomenal success in America and around the world, decided to add a U.S. auto-assembly plant. Honda officials gave the folks in Greensburg/Decatur County, Indiana, four days to put together a deal.

In 100 hours or so, city, county and state officials assembled a $141.5 million incentive package to secure a $550 million plant and its estimated 2,000 jobs. With what it dubbed "Project Zoom," Indiana beat all comers-including the Ohioans, who already enjoy a strong relationship with Honda.

In short, in a state where lots of folks say, "Go slow and steady; don't change too much too fast;" in a state where lots of folks loathe foreign investment; in a state that only 24 years ago told its secondlargest city to go it alone; we just accelerated our economy by using "Project Zoom" to win a Japanese car plant.

To that I say: Keep the changes coming, Mr. Governor, and keep the pedal to the metal. With results like these, I'll take "too much, too fast" over "too little, too late" every time.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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