Greenfield trying to grow post-secondary presence to aid economic development

November 17, 2008

 If certain people in Hancock County have their way, one of the fastest-growing new industries here could be adult education.

The vision will be partly fulfilled in February, when Vincennes University plans to begin offering eight-week classes at Hancock County Public Library, in Greenfield.

The courses will be geared to working adults with a tilt toward work-force development. VU will supplement an ongoing platter of courses being offered by Ivy Tech Community College during the evenings at Greenfield High School.

Education, even in basic, non-credit form, is a big deal to economic development leaders. They say Hancock and other less-developed doughnut counties surrounding Indianapolis can no longer count on good interstate access or cheap and plentiful land to entice new industry and spur the expansion of old.

"Companies used to land where they could get the cheapest ground," said Lee Lewellen, senior vice president at Greenfield-based Thomas P. Miller and Associates, an economic development consulting firm assisting Greenfield.

These days, "companies are looking for a trained work force, first ....That's become a much more competitive opportunity for communities," he added.

"In my world, one of the driving site location factors is work-force preparedness," said Dennis Maloy, executive director of the Hancock County Economic Development Corp.

That's a problem for a county like Hancock, which doesn't have a college or other postsecondary institutions, per se.

Yes, its 66,300 residents are within an hour's drive of ample educational opportunities in Indianapolis. But that is difficult for some of those who need knowledge and skills upgrades the most.

"Does a person want to work their eight-hour or 10-hour shift and then leave for downtown Indianapolis?" Maloy asked rhetorically.

Hancock County residents fall short in postsecondary achievement—so much so that employers could be forgiven for thinking the county doesn't place much emphasis on educational attainment.

The proportion of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher is 22.2 percent in Hancock County, compared with 27.6 percent in Boone County, and 48.7 percent in Hamilton County, according to data from Indiana University's Indiana Business Research Center.

"There are counties that don't have a strong track record of educational participation beyond high school," said Lewellen, former vice president of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership.

Yet it's not for lack of trying in the county east of Indianapolis.

In the late 1990s, the Hancock County Council for Economic Development and local schools helped launch what later was known as the Alliance for Community Education. ACE, with funding from Lilly Endowment, offered a variety of courses in Greenfield from nurse's aide classes to food safety certification courses needed by workers. ACE folded this year, for reasons that vary depending on whom you ask. "It just wasn't taking off like we wanted," said Dianne Osborne, who served on the founding board and is CEO of the Hancock County Public Library.

The library is becoming a focus of Hancock's resurrected adult learning effort. The library is centrally located and has a computer lab that's in use only about one-third of the day.

It is at the library where some of the learning needs are most evident, as Osborne watches people "by the droves" arrive to use computers to file for unemployment or to complete online job applications now commonly used among retailers.

Some "have no idea how to do that. They are people who have simply missed the technology revolution," Osborne said. "I had one man who was actually in tears. He was trying to do a resume online," but couldn't figure it out.

Osborne has high hopes for what Vincennes will bring to help people cope with a new economy, although she said the first courses aren't set. But, she said, "people are clamoring" for offerings.

In the meantime, Osborne is trying to get Purdue University interested in offering classes at the library.

Having the community served by a variety of educational institutions is exactly what newly elected Mayor Brad DeReamer is shooting for. He wants a campus built in town—perhaps next to the library—that several colleges could share.

The idea is to build a critical mass of specialties and to make the institutions more invested in the community.

"My ultimate goal is to have a community college with two, three, four or five colleges using it," DeReamer said.

He said his team, which has hired Thomas P. Miller and Associates to assist, has talked with other universities in Indianapolis and in Anderson. "They want you to do the infrastructure. Nobody has the money."

DeReamer said a facility is likely going to require private investment.

"It looks like that's where we're leaning," he said.

Ivy Tech, at least, has not been keen on investing in bricks and mortar in areas such as Greenfield. Leasing has been the more cost-effective way to go and is a quicker way to roll out courses, said Kevin Jones, Ivy Tech's assistant dean over community campuses.

Whatever the form, it's clear these educational efforts are perceived as a benefit to existing businesses and have potential to attract new ones.

For example, Indianapolis-based Duke Realty Corp., which is constructing a number of giant office and industrial sites in Boone County, is supporting the Boone County Learning Network, which aims to become the county's primary promoter and coordinator of postsecondary and lifelong learning.

The network aims to help meet a broad range of adult learning needs, such as obtaining a high school equivalency certificate or earning professional education credits. It also wants to help companies develop programs tailored to train workers in specific skills.

In recent years, Boone County has landed some big economic development trophies, such as an Amazon.com distribution facility and Medco Health Solutions' pharmacy distribution complex at Allpoints at Anson, in Whitestown.

Lewellen, of Thomas P. Miller, which is helping the Boone network with its business plan, said the existence of such organizations helps businesses get a better handle on what kind of progress is under way in helping to bolster a county's work force.

"From an economic development standpoint, it's an issue of being better able to define and market the work force you have," Lewellen said.

Education initiatives "send the message to the business world that education is important to our community," said Hancock Economic Development Corp.'s Maloy. "It says this is a progressive community."

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