The rolling hills and farmland of LaGrange County in Northern Indiana are well-known to tourists for the large Amish population, but this area fifty-five miles east of South Bend and forty-five miles north of Fort Wayne has much more to offer. We spoke to LaGrange County Economic Development Corporation President and Chief Executive Officer Ryne Krock, to find out more.
LaGrange County was one of the last counties in Indiana to create an economic development corporation, as it was only founded in 2009. There was a great deal of economic activity taking place here, but there was also a lack of business support for entrepreneurs, prospective businesses and existing entities. Goals included the retention and expansion of existing companies and attraction of new ones. At the time, there were not many community development related organizations in the county or its towns.
“Business and community leaders identified an opportunity to play catch-up and create an organization. Elected officials, community and business leaders, bankers, heads of local utility entities and many others played a role in creating the EDC.”
Jac Price, a county councilman, county commissioner and a small business owner, played a huge role in the formation of the corporation. Although he recently passed away, his legacy lives on. Also pivotal in creating the organization, were Mark Leu, Joe Pierce and Bill Connelly. Mark Leu is the president of the local power co-op, the LaGrange County REMC (Rural Electric Membership Corporation). Joe Pierce is the President of Farmers State Bank, headquartered in LaGrange. Bill Connelly is the owner of the LaGrange County Publishing Company and a Clay Township trustee.
Before the formation of the LaGrange County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the county had economic development efforts put forth by one part-time employee. Needless to say, that one part-time employee is not enough to make an impact on the economic development of a county.
LaGrange County Economic Development Corporation is aided by its involvement in the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, which helps to generate project leads. Funding for LaGrange County EDC started as mainly public but is quickly approaching a fifty-percent split. Ryne’s predecessor Keith Gillenwater did an excellent job of finding partners in the private sector by informing potential investors of the role that the EDC was hoping to play. The level of funding speaks volumes about the confidence industry and business have in its abilities. Continued growth in private-sector investment is a key indicator of the critical role that the EDC plays in LaGrange County.
“That’s a key thing for me. The level of private support we have received is a gauge of how we are doing, because, at the end of the day, we want the county, town officials and the population to be happy with the work we are doing as it directly impacts them. More importantly, however, is the level of buy-in we see from our private companies who we are specifically aimed at assisting.”
The EDC finds that most of the existing private funders are companies that are clamoring for more people and the focus has had to be shifted to the attraction of a new workforce. The new priority of the EDC is to get more families to move to the area, rather than businesses. What the county is seeing is that the biggest hurdle to attracting new industry and helping existing industries to grow is finding the needed workforce.
“The folks that we have here are extremely skilled which has attracted many very strong businesses to our community, but we need more people. The RV industry is thriving and has a big impact on the local economy. When it’s booming, they pay very high wages, and it’s hard for others to compete. Really, what it comes down to is that we need a bigger workforce.”
Population growth is higher in LaGrange County than in the surrounding counties and this is mainly due to the Amish, who historically have had a higher birth rate. However, the EDC is also looking at what it can do to help grow all sectors of the population.
A large Amish population has been an asset to population growth and the county economy. There are approximately 19,000 Amish, comprising more than 42 percent of the population of the county. “We look at this as a positive thing. We are confident that companies have come to this area and located here because of the strength of our workforce. The Amish culture is very hard working. They are very dedicated as individuals, and that lends itself well for certain industries. They also make great neighbors and are part of the very fabric of our community.”
There are abundant cottage industries and small businesses within the towns of Topeka and Shipshewana. Many of them are Amish-owned and showcase products with superior craftsmanship and quality that draw people from all over. Woodworking is one thing for which the Amish are known, and furniture made here is exported around the world. You cannot go down a country road in LaGrange County without seeing Amish woodworking businesses.
A company looking to locate in the area, when examining educational attainment, may see a problem, since most Amish traditionally don’t go beyond the eighth grade. “I always make the argument that, while the non-Amish continue our education in the classroom in a traditional setting, the Amish are out there in the real world in business or industry or in the fields, learning skills that are hard to replicate in a classroom. It’s more about real-world application. They learn on an as-needed basis and labeling them as anything other than educated is an injustice.”
Recently, a comprehensive, county-wide residential study was performed to uncover whether there is a need for housing and what types of housing. Based on the results, the EDC will develop a strategy to start new developments, which will become a tool to attract the new workforce that employers are demanding.
“I would expect that, if we take the findings in this study and some of the recommendations, acted on them, that we absolutely could see population growth here at a rate that we wouldn’t otherwise. It’s going to be important to have a healthy balance—population growth in the right areas, allowing us to maintain our quality of life that residents love and appreciate so much.”
One of the primary reasons that people live in LaGrange County is its quality of life. There is a slower pace here which the people love. Residents can get from one end of the county to the other in a short period on roads that are not congested. It is a great place to raise a family and has a very low crime rate. It is also attracting new families to the area based on its low cost of living.
Within county boundaries, there are a surfeit of sport, private, no wake and natural lakes to complement an extensive park system. The parks include a variety of environments from lake and marshes to prairies. There are great job opportunities, and the school systems are top notch.
“We have access to a lot of major markets as well: Fort Wayne to the south and South Bend to the west. While all of the amenities may not be in LaGrange County – such as certain entertainment and chain restaurants – there are many good alternatives as well as the access to other markets. The sign that greets you on the way to Topeka reads: ‘Life in the Past Lane.’ I think that sums up that part of our community very well.”
Shipshewana has a trading place that includes one of the largest flea markets in the Midwest. There are countless antique shops and boutiques that sell locally crafted items from food and décor to clothing and furniture. There are so many options that make this a great alternative to a shopping mall.
The Blue Gate Restaurant and Blue Gate Theatre bring in national entertainment acts that people travel hours to see. This upcoming year will see artists such as Loretta Lynn, Jeff Foxworthy and The Oak Ridge Boys. Past entertainment has included Air Supply, Little River Band and Tanya Tucker.
“From my perspective, we are in a rural community, and it’s a very conservative one at that. Naturally, it’s common to be resistant to change. What we are trying to do, as the EDC, is not to fundamentally change the character of our community, but rather to build upon what LaGrange County is and what it has typically been known for and bring in some opportunities that have not been here before. Let’s enhance what we’ve already built by imagining what’s possible.”