Incoming commerce secretary eyes ‘quality over quantity’ in economic development

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. is likely to do some soul-searching in the months ahead to determine whether the strategy it uses for recruiting talent and jobs to the state is the right approach.

The state could refocus its efforts on increasing the state’s average wage and creating jobs that will attract—and retain—younger workers, rather than prioritizing projects that promise hundreds of jobs at lower pay, incoming Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers said Wednesday during an interview with Nate Feltman, publisher and CEO of Indianapolis Business Journal.

Feltman served as Indiana’s secretary of commerce, from 2006 to 2008 under former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Chambers, the founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based development firm Buckingham Cos., was named to the post on Monday by Gov. Eric Holcomb, replacing longtime secretary Jim Schellinger, who resigned in March after serving more than five years at the position.

IBJ’s newsroom requested an interview with Chambers following his appointment, but the incoming secretary declined, saying that he would be available after he started the job. However, his staff offered an interview to the IBJ publisher.

Chambers told Feltman he believes adaptation and a “reevaluation of what the marketplace is doing” by the IEDC is a good thing—and a natural move for any agency or company when it changes leadership.

“It’s a good time to play to [Indiana’s] strengths, and I don’t think you do that using the old playbook,” he said. “I don’t think, at least, we assume we’re going to use the old playbook. Let’s look at [it] and see if there’s some new plays we should put in it—that’s what we want to do.”

He added that he expects the state will take a “more qualitative” approach to business attraction and retention during his two-year contract, although he praised Schellinger’s IEDC for bringing in a record number of jobs over the past several years.

“I’ve had lots of conversation with the governor on this,” Chambers said. “I think we want to be more qualitative versus transactional—quality over quantity—and as we go forward, evaluate the opportunity to build our economy. Job announcements are terrific, and we are so competitive in that regard … the question is, ’Is that the right metric?’”

He said among his biggest goals for the IEDC are improving the state’s ability to attract entrepreneurs, boosting its average earned wage to be on par with the national average. He also wants Indiana to “be a leader in the energy transition” by taking on developments and job-creating projects centered on sustainable energy.

The IEDC is also likely to lean further into its $500 million Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, which focuses on creating jobs across the state involving placemaking and developing communities where people want to live and work, Chambers said.

And the state is also looking at ways it could capitalize on legislation that could allot $8 billion for the creation of at least 10 innovation hubs across the country. Chambers said landing one of the centers proposed in the U.S. Innovation and competition act—co-authored by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.—“is very important” to the IEDC.

“I know we as a state have to put our best foot forward. I don’t think you can take anything for granted,” he said. “The wheels are already turning at the IEDC about how we can do exactly that. Our city and our state are pretty good at this stuff, and we have a great team at the IEDC, so they are already brainstorming about how we can be authentically competitive and uniquely competitive, such that we would win one of those regional spots.”

Chambers took a leave of absence from Buckingham, which he founded in 1984, to take on the role of commerce chief, and said he expects his shift from that role to be gradual. The firm will not be eligible for IEDC incentives for the life of his contract. 

He said while he is open to staying in the new job beyond his two-year commitment, that decision would be made by Holcomb.

“I think it puts pressure on me to perform,” Chambers said. “I never say never, so if we get to that point and they’re not tossing me out of the office and we’re achieving our goals, I’ll certainly be open to thinking about some more time.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said Jim Schellinger served as commerce secretary under three governors. He was secretary under Gov. Eric Holcomb and an IEDC board member under Gov. Mike Pence. You can see all of our corrections here.

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2 thoughts on “Incoming commerce secretary eyes ‘quality over quantity’ in economic development

  1. “boosting its average earned wage to be on par with the national average”

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    Bravo. The warehouse jobs will come because of location and highways, pretty much regardless of what IEDC does.

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    State effort and incentives should chase $32/hour jobs and not $16/hour. One supports shaky daycare and Walmart jobs; the other supports higher level goods and services. One pays less than $1000/yr. in state income tax, the other more than $2,000.

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