Economic developer for hire: Miller’s brain trust spreads advice from town to country

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It’s about soybeans and high hopes.

Clinton County has only 34,148 residents, nearly half of them living in the county seat of Frankfort. Most of the labor force works in either farming or auto-parts manufacturing. Neither is generally considered the field of the future.

Enter economic development consultant Thomas P. Miller & Associates. Since Clinton County is the state’s fifth-largest soybean producer, TPMA counseled a strategy based on what it already does well.

Starting next year, federal regulators will require foods to be labeled for transfatty acids. If Clinton County began growing healthier low-linolenic soybeans, it might be able to charge a premium for its harvest. Eventually, it could attract all kinds of soybean companies, from processors and distributors to cooking oil producers.

Thanks to TPMA, said Clinton County Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Director Gina Sheets, the area’s low-linolenic efforts are now well under way.

With the aid of TPMA’s advice this year, Clinton County has convinced three producers to test the seed next spring. The firm has also already helped Clinton County identify key players in the low linolenic production industry and contact them.

“Tom is really connected in the state of Indiana, and really willing to make those introductions to open some doors,” Sheets said. “I don’t know if we’d be to the stage we are if those contacts weren’t made. I’d still be out there knocking on doors.”

Founded in 1989, Thomas P. Miller & Associates takes a unique approach to each economic development project. What works for Clinton County wouldn’t for higher-profile customers like BioCrossroads or the Central Indiana Community Partnership. But each assignment begins with the same attempt to catalog assets, whether the client is a town, university or corporation. From that effort, tactics and goals emerge.

“The hard part is to plan and strategize,” said Thomas P. Miller & Associates CEO Thomas P. Miller, 54. “The easy part is to find money.”

Back in the 1980s, Miller served as executive director of the Indiana Department of Employment and Training Services. When then-Lt. Gov. John Mutz, a Republican, lost the 1988 gubernatorial election to Democrat Evan Bayh, Miller decided to found his own consulting firm.

He’s been at the helm since, except for a hiatus when he served as president of the Indiana Technology Partnership.

Along the way, he’s attracted some of Indiana’s best-known leaders to his side. Miller’s team of parttime advisers includes Mutz; Graham Toft, the former director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Economic Competitiveness; Purdue University Vice Provost Don Gentry; and, as of Aug. 31, University of Indianapolis President Emeritus Jerry Israel.

Universities are increasingly becoming the centers of economic development, Israel said, making TPMA a logical home for the insights he developed over a career.

“I would hope that, as they have focused so much on the importance of universities at the center of community and economic development, that I could bring an insider’s view of how they work,” Israel said.

Miller’s brain trust gives his consulting firm unique perspective. Jim Wheeler, TPMA’s senior vice president for economic competitiveness, policy and research, just joined the firm. It’s the opportunity to work with one another that attracts so many well-known leaders under one roof, he said.

“We all intersect around the passion for policy and making a difference,” Wheeler said.

Miller’s advisers also open doors. TPMA is currently helping the administration of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. create an economic development strategy for the entire state.

These days, there’s a lot more to job creation than traditional tax abatements, Mutz said.

“I see it as a plan which will incorporate not just the incentive programs and things you associate with economic development, but investments in higher education, worker training and infrastructure. In other words, it’s the alignment of other state policies with the economic development program,” Mutz said. “This plan really has to be a far-reaching and big-picture effort. But it’s also got to work.”

BioCrossroads Vice President Anne Shane said TPMA helped catalog Indiana’s biotech assets just as the life sciences initiative was getting started in February 2002. Since then, the firm has helped BioCrossroads organize two conferences on biosensors.

“What we see over and over again in Indiana is there is a really wide and fairly deep asset base out there, but you never know what it is, because it tends to not be connected,” Shane said. “Tom’s firm has filled a gap in Indiana. I don’t know that there’s anybody doing exactly what Tom does out there.”

Economic development is simply about problem solving, Miller said. And seasoned leaders approaching the end of their careers often already know the solutions.

Just as it must assess and then build upon the strengths of its towns, universities and corporations, Miller said, Indiana needs to take advantage of its gray-haired acumen.

“As I look down the road at age 54, I hope somebody else starts a senior adviser program for me,” he joked. “I can’t do this forever.”

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