About 48 hours after the exciting finish of this year’s Indy 500 race, Mayors Wayne Seybold, R-Marion, and Greg Goodnight, D-Kokomo, announced the formation of the Midwest Automotive Loop. This partnership will use “the region’s strengths to attract additional manufacturing technology investment to the region.”
Two mayors of competing political parties cooperating may strike some as election-year showboating. Goodnight and Seybold are sincere men with strong records of achievement. Their efforts deserve commendation, not carping criticism.
Kokomo and Marion, Muncie and Logansport, Peru and Wabash as well as other communities in “the Loop” of 13 contiguous counties, endured a bleak history of both absolute and relative decline in step with the automotive industry’s fortunes. Now this alliance will focus on the resources of the counties with eyes not blurred by local interests.
This is the progressive aspect of regionalism in economic development. It does not create another agency to lord over local development efforts. Rather, it seeks to support those efforts with joint marketing and research.
Regionalism and consolidation are the simultaneous hope and threat to local economic development in Indiana. In some counties, economic development organizations are being merged into chambers of commerce or combined with tourism activities. In a desire to save a few dollars, the divergent agendas and needs of different organizations are co-mingled.
Sometimes grafting one agency onto the trunk of another works well, but the risks are substantial. Economic development is a broad-based process progressing in short, opportunistic steps. Many chambers of commerce proceed from event to event within a well-regulated calendar. Often, the jobs created by tourism are not the high-wage, high-tech positions sought by economic developers.
The Kokomo-Marion announcement was long on vision and short on details; these will come as the program matures. Marketing existing resources to potential domestic and international investors is an important start. In time, however, the region should identify and develop unique resources essential to the automotive industry.
It is not enough to have many firms making auto parts. Ultimately, the success of the loop depends on its distinctive characteristics. Will it have research facilities unlike those in other regions? Will it have a specialized and diverse work force of sufficient magnitude to provide a magnet for investment? Are the many separate communities willing to align themselves into a coordinated program to improve their high school and vocational programs yielding qualified workers for automotive and allied industries?
The loop announcement proudly points to local higher-education institutions, but none of these possesses a distinctive automotive focus. The announcement touts access via Interstate 69 and the redeveloped U.S. 31 corridor. Yet, aside from the incomplete Hoosier Heartland Highway (U.S. 24-State Road 25), no modern east-west highway runs through the region. The short trip from Marion to Kokomo remains an adventure from the 1950s.
Accolades are due mayors Goodnight and Seybold. Their vision and personal energy are commendable. They introduced a major concept that makes sense for their communities. In keeping with the spirit of the times, however, they omitted saying explicitly how this venture will be funded.
Ahead, the mayors have major tasks: to bring into the alliance other communities of the loop, to garner support from the private sector that will benefit from this program, and to develop a comprehensive and comprehensible agenda of action steps.•
Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at [email protected].