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Local corporations maintain FFA convention funding: Main goal: getting attention of future leaders

October 22, 2007

Indianapolis-area companies are ponying up $1.15 million to help put on this month's National FFA convention, an event expected to draw more than 55,000 members and their chaperones to the city.

They're backing the bigbudget affair largely because of the access it gives them to future leaders-from tomorrow's policymakers to those who could someday work at these local firms.

And the city is putting on quite a show to get the attention of the roughly 46,000 12-to 21-year-old members and the 9,000 chaperones and teachers who will be here Oct. 24-27.

"This is not your greatgrandfather's FFA," Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association spokesman Bob Schultz said of the locally based organization formerly known as Future Farmers of America. "This is an event that's appropriate for the edu-tainment label."

To woo the convention, Indianapolis promised to deliver local sponsorships to help foot the $6 million bill.

Led by Ted A. McKinney of Dow Agro-Sciences LLC, the local organizing committee raised $1.15 million for the first FFA gathering here last year. It's on track to raise about the same amount this year, McKinney said, thanks to a large group of mostly small donors. Still, five local organizations gave $50,000 or more, including Dow AgroSciences, Lilly Endowment Inc., Indiana Farm Bureau Inc., the state of Indiana and Elanco Animal Health.

McKinney said his goal is to get local firms to build long-term relationships with FFA, which will hold its national convention in Indianapolis through 2011. Dow Agro-Sciences gives because it puts the company in front of future leaders, he said. McKinney declined to disclose the exact amount of the company's donation.

"It's an opportunity to touch potential employees, policymakers, customers and stakeholders in some way, to develop a bond with our industry," he said.

But the corporate support isn't limited to agribusinesses. Banks and insurance companies, for example, donate because the organization's appeal is broad.

"[FFA is] a growing organization because the diversity of agriculture is growing," McKinney said.

Fifth Third Bancorp sponsors the event here and also donated in previous years when the convention was held in Louisville.

"They're creating leaders," said Natalie Guzman, spokeswoman for the bank's central Indiana region. Guzman declined to say how much the bank gave, but said it wants to support an organization headquartered in Indianapolis.

"In terms of organizations for youths nationally or locally, FFA is just enormous," she said.

CountryMark LLC, an Indianapolisbased oil company that produces ethanol and soy biodiesel blends, gave $15,000 this year to sponsor public-television broadcasts of convention highlights. The three halfhour shows will air on WFYI- TV Channel 20 and in the convention halls for attendees.

"It gives us a wonderful opportunity to interact with these young people," said CountryMark brand manager Belinda Puetz. "We hope to be able to interview some of them for positions here in the future or do business with them when they need energy products."

While some companies help pay for the convention, others also are using it to highlight agribusiness career paths at their firms. Students will get the chance to tour local heavy hitters, such as Dow Agro-Sciences, Purdue University and Elanco Animal Health, the Greenfield-based division of Eli Lilly and Co. that focuses on animal medicines.

And as FFA broadens its appeal from pure farming careers to agribusiness, a broader array of companies is lining up to give tours. Eight more venues signed up this year, bringing the total to 28 companies. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Conner Prairie, the Indianapolis Zoo and Hoosier Park in Anderson are just a few of the newbies.

The Speedway saw about 20,000 FFAers take general tours last year-making it the busiest week for tours in 2006. This year, it's also hosting career tours that will focus on the Indy Racing League's conversion to ethanol-fuel cars.

At Hoosier Park, the members will get to see behind-the-scenes jobs, spending time with track maintenance staff, jockeys and a horse trainer. The horse track's tours are booked solid-300 FFAers will take career tours and another 300 ordinary tours.

While local companies are polishing up their spiels for the students, the convention planners have been working on this year's event since last year's ended.

"[After the 2006 convention], we shut our office down for one day to take a deep breath," said Dale Crabtree, director of convention, awards, recognition and events management for National FFA. "Then the core group starts right back up again."

The logistics for the convention mirror those needed for a small invasion. Planners need to figure out how to re-route downtown traffic, get the hordes to and from hotels, and rehearse the all-hands-on-deck ceremonies complete with light shows and rock-videotype montages.

"There's no other convention or event-including the Indianapolis 500 or the Final Four-where every hospitality muscle is flexed at the same time," said ICVA spokesman Schultz.
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