EDITORIAL: Chamber merger can help unify region

March 31, 2012

Regionalism is a concept that’s easy to embrace but hard to put into practice.

The disconnect between wanting to work as a region and really doing so is evident in the controversy surrounding the proposal that the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce swallow two high-profile economic development groups—one serving Indianapolis proper and the other serving the nine-county region.

As IBJ reporter Kathleen McLaughlin detailed in a story last week, those in charge of economic development in the counties surrounding Indianapolis are skeptical they’ll benefit if the chamber absorbs Develop Indy, which promotes economic development inside Marion County, and Indy Partnership, the group charged with marketing the broader area.

Folks in the ring counties worry that Indy Partnership will fade into obscurity if the chamber merger happens and that economic development in their counties will suffer at the hands of an Indianapolis-centric model.

Those are the concerns that emerge when people who are supposed to be working together are divided by very real boundaries, such as county lines. When a company locates in, say, Shelby County, instead of Indianapolis, Shelby County adds to its tax base; Indianapolis doesn’t. So the turf wars that break out are about more than pride. There’s a tangible benefit when a company picks one county over another within the region.

Yet regionalism makes sense because the real competition in economic development circles is often between our region and other regions.

If our region is to compete effectively, it needs to present—at least to outsiders—a unified front. And it needs to do so in an intuitive way. By those measures, the proposal on the table seems to have something for everyone.

It would reverse an odd arrangement that has existed since February 2011 under which Indy Partnership, which is supposed to market the region, is a part of Develop Indy. It’s counterintuitive to have the entity that markets the region under the control of a group that promotes a single county in that region. Under the chamber, the two would once again become separate units, theoretically giving Indy Partnership more independence.

From an outsider’s perspective, it makes sense to have the chamber as the umbrella organization. Chambers of commerce across the country take the lead in economic development for their regions. Indianapolis used to be organized the same way, but the chamber lost its official economic development role in the early 1980s, making our region the exception to the rule.

The chamber’s dedication to the region shouldn’t be in dispute. Its membership doesn’t stop at the county line (25 percent of its members reside outside the county) and we doubt that its interest in retaining and attracting companies will, either.

It makes sense that the county economic development organizations that have a stake in Indy Partnership want it to have a stronger voice in marketing the region. There’s potential for that under the new plan. We encourage the county partners to embrace it and make it their own.•


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