To people in the economic-development business, it’s the classic chicken-or-egg puzzle: Which comes first, jobs or the people needed to fill them?
The question is far from academic. According to Indiana Business Review, 210,437 people were working in the Fort Wayne metropolitan statistical area of Allen, Whitley and Wells counties last September compared to 204,866 in 2006. The average 2016 unemployment rate was 4.3 percent compared to 5 percent 10 years earlier, while the labor force — the number or people employed or looking for work — increased from 215,207 in 2006 to 218,794 last year.
All of which, according to the journal published by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, suggests an area labor market “at or very near full employment” even as the forecast for this year and beyond is for continued growth, with the Fort Wayne area’s economy expected to grow to $19.5 billion (up 1 percent from 2015) and the number of employed workers to increase to 211,661, about 1.5 percent above last year’s total.
Where might those jobs originate? If recent history is any guide, five sectors are likely possibilities. Between 2010 and 2015, service jobs increased 19 percent in the Fort Wayne area, leisure and hospitality jobs increased by 13 percent, manufacturing and education/health care jobs by 11 percent and construction jobs by 9 percent. As a result, the MSA’s gross regional product had recovered to its pre-recession level of $18.1 billion by 2011 and reached $19.3 billion by 2015. Manufacturing accounted for 25 percent of that growth.
“I want to be optimistic,” said John Stafford, interim director of IPFW’s Community Research Institute. “The national economy is strong, and we are very tied to that. Architects and bankers I talk to say they are very busy, which means people are making capital investments.”
As CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., such optimistic sentiments and numbers are music to Eric Doden’s ears. But he also knows achieving and even surpassing them in the future will require the area to reverse a troubling population trend.
“Businesses need a workforce, and nationally about 60 percent of jobs are filled by people moving in. It’s closer to 75 percent if you’re not a nationally recognized economy,” Doden said, noting that 2,923 more people moved out of Allen County between 2010 and 2015 than moved in — a negative “net domestic migration” that he’s determined to reverse.
Other factors, most notably births and deaths, also influence population statistics. But the ability to attract and retain a young, well-educated workforce is considered crucial if Allen County is to overcome a decades-long slide in wages, which at $42,539 represent just 80 percent of the national average despite recent gains. Such figures don’t necessarily look too bad when compared to other Indiana cities — South Bend and Indianapolis saw greater out-migration, for example — but Doden wants Fort Wayne to compare favorably to places like Denver and Chattanooga, which are seeing people move in accompanied by healthy wage growth.
And, right now, it doesn’t.
“Things you hear about Fort Wayne is that it lacks aesthetics, are there things to do and, ‘Will I feel welcome’? But when people do move here, they love it and want to stay,” Doden said, implying that the true challenge is getting them to consider Fort Wayne in the first place. Hence northeast Indiana’s “Road to One Million” campaign, which with the help of $42 million in state Regional Cities funds hopes to grow the region’s population from about 772,000 to 1 million by 2031, and GFW’s “Opportunity on the Edge of Greatness” program that promotes five projects Doden believes would help boost population growth by 2.1 percent over 10 years and double local economic production from $30 million to $60 million over 15 years.
Those projects include a downtown “event center,” redevelopment of the General Electric campus and Columbia Street’s Landing, riverfront improvements and a science-themed park just north of downtown. Together, they would cost hundreds of millions of dollars — only a fraction of which has been accounted for.
But such things are essential nevertheless, he insists, because young people especially want to live in places that appeal to their preferred lifestyles. “The economy is emotional and behavioral,” he said.
Improvements already made or underway downtown have begun that process, but more is needed, Doden insists. “All great communities repurpose the old and build new. We have the opportunity to be excellent; one of the special cities in America.”
But Stafford warned such optimism should be tempered. A tight labor market could drive up wages too, he said, but not necessarily in the way Doden and others would prefer. The Fort Wayne area remains heavily reliant on heavy manufacturing, and dramatically reversing the flow of migration will not happen overnight.
“It will be a long-term effort taking years and years or decades,” he predicted.