“There’s a real sense of community here,” says Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance President/CEO Charles Sparks. “People feel like they can really make a difference by getting involved.” With an unemployment rate consistently below five percent and accolades ranging from Industry Week magazine’s “First in the nation in manufacturing presence, productivity and strength” to “Indiana Community of the Year,” the claim checks out.
Indiana’s Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance is unusual among economic development organizations in its approach and its structure. In 2009, the community decided that it was in the best interest of Greater Kokomo’s economy to combine several local organizations, each of which was invested in the local economy and community, into a singular organization to enhance collaboration.
From this effort, the Alliance was built, and today, the Greater Kokomo economy is cultivated by the combined efforts of a traditional economic development organization, the chamber of commerce, the downtown association, a visitors bureau, and a small business incubator known as Inventrek Technology Park. Each has a different perspective on what the community needs, and then when this collection of organizations aligns, it makes Greater Kokomo’s approach to economic development truly distinctive.
Greater Kokomo’s local economy is dependent on the durable goods manufacturing industry and particularly the automotive sector. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has five plants in the area that employ more than 8,000 people for most of its transmission production. If that does not say enough about how capable and dependable the Kokomo manufacturing labor force is, Chrysler recently invested $1.9 billion into its local operations, making Kokomo the largest transmission producing community in the world.
Other major employers are Delphi Automotive, which has a facility running electromagnetic, environmental, and dynamic testing on automotive parts, and General Motors, which operates a manufacturing facility.
With several major manufacturing facilities employing almost 10,000 people, the automotive industry has a significant effect on the Kokomo economy.
Beyond automotive, there are other major employers including Haynes International, a leading manufacturer of nickel- and cobalt-based alloys used in corrosion and high-temperature applications, two hospitals, four colleges and five school corporations. Along with production operations, Haynes International maintains its corporate offices in Kokomo.
Businesses in the Greater Kokomo area benefit from exceptional advantages. “We have a local government that’s very productive and efficient with very little debt,” says Sparks, “and we benefit from being in Indiana; we’ve made tremendous progress in recent years in terms of its business and tax climate.”
In late November 2013, the new U.S. 31 Kokomo Freeway construction was opened to the public. This 13-mile, four-lane divided highway cost $155 million and allows Kokomo businesses reliable and efficient transport of materials and products. This project has turned transport, something that was once a challenge to many area businesses, into an opportunity for prosperity.
The Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance has an effective approach to economic development. Where some communities simply fight to bring outside businesses in, the Alliance also focuses on nurturing growth within the community. One piece of this is working closely with area companies that are already established so that when they need to expand, they find sites in the Kokomo area. Another part is encouraging and facilitating the creation of new employers.
There is also an investment in the community with the belief that if there is an investment in quality of life, economic prosperity will follow. Within the last three years, there have been significant quality-of-life upgrades in the downtown area, including a $9 million baseball stadium that received Ballpark Digest’s ‘Best Summer Collegiate Facility’ award in both 2015 and 2016; a $9 million parking garage with nearly 400 parking spaces; a $16 million YMCA; a $3 million project for building new townhomes; and a $32 million mixed-use development that includes 198 luxury apartments. For a city of almost 60,000 people, that is significant investment in three years, and the money came from a balanced list of private and public investors.
Fine-tuning traffic flow in the downtown core is another way the community has worked to improve life in Kokomo. Removing unneeded traffic signals, converting one-way streets into two-way streets, and creating a riverfront district were all endeavors to encourage economic development in the downtown core. As a result of these efforts, 17 new businesses have opened. Investing in the community is a guiding principle of the Alliance; another is fostering economic growth by helping innovators and entrepreneurs. One of the ways it does this is through its business incubator facility, Inventrek Technology Park.
Opened in 2004, Inventrek is a 98,000-square-foot facility developed through partnerships with Indiana University’s Innovate Indiana program and Purdue University. Its function is to help entrepreneurs build technology startups by providing them with affordable space, resources, and advice. The facility is equipped with features useful to companies of all types including standard office space, garage bays, laboratory space, and more. The office of the Hoosier Heartland Small Business Development Center is also located on-site and offers services such as strategy and business planning, market research, financial reporting, money management, informational workshops and training sessions.
The Shared Drive is a public coworking space within the Inventrek facility that opened in 2015. Its mission is to give entrepreneurs access to a variety of business-related amenities at a reasonable cost. For $40 a month or $30 for students, innovators get access to professional office space, high-speed wireless internet, print/fax/scan equipment, on-site business development counseling, extended-hours facility access, conference and meeting spaces, secure lockers, a dedicated mailbox, events, networking opportunities, meet-ups and learning sessions. For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, The Shared Drive works like a gym membership for your start-up.
The Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau is an important piece of the Alliance puzzle. Its function is to attract corporate and public tourism to Kokomo by promoting its many attractions and historical significance. Kokomo has fascinating attractions including Kokomo Opalescent Glass, which is America’s oldest art glass company. Its public tours allow visitors to experience art glass up close as it is hand-ladled and rolled from a 2,500-degree furnace. Then there’s the Kokomo Arts Pavilion, an outdoor covered stage in Foster Park that provides free entertainment to the community including a yearly summer concert. There is also the Kokomo Beach Family Aquatic Center containing a pool and giant waterslides. The community is currently pursuing the development of a downtown hotel and conference center.
Museums and art galleries include the Kokomo Automotive Museum, the Seiberling Mansion, Greentown Glass Museum, and the Artworks gallery showcasing the work of local artists. There is also the IU Art Gallery featuring fine art exhibitions from around the world. These are only a few of the many attractions unique to Kokomo.
Every year in June, crowds gather downtown in the Courthouse Square to celebrate Kokomo’s annual Strawberry Festival. Strawberry shortcakes piled high with ice cream, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries accompany a night of live music and entertainment. The first Friday of every month brings the crowds back downtown for free family-friendly activities focused on arts, community, and culture. Live music, crafts, food, and giveaways can be expected through the 30 to 40 participating venues each month. Kokomo is a city full of culture, and the Alliance believes that economic prosperity is a natural result of a vibrant community.
An economy like Kokomo’s, that depends on durable goods, particularly in the automotive market, is often slower in times of economic weakness. During the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the decline in durable goods spending created serious challenges for Kokomo’s local economy.
“When the economy takes a downturn, we feel it, and we did with the most recent recession,” says Sparks. “Thirty-five percent of our employment is manufacturing [durable goods], the national average is 11 percent.”
The Alliance sees a way forward. By diversifying local industry into non-manufacturing sectors and non-durable-goods manufacturing, it will be in a better position to deal with any future economic downturn. But there is nothing like hard times to bring out the best in a community. “Some say adversity builds character; some say adversity reveals character. I say adversity can do both. In our community, whether that adversity has been the result of an economic downturn or an act of nature, it has both built and revealed this community’s character.”
“Our employers, citizens, local government, and non-profit organizations always rise up in the face of unanticipated difficulties and unexpected challenges,” says Sparks. For the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, economic prosperity comes from a healthy quality of life. “I was born in Kokomo—lived here most of my life. There’s a real sense of community here.”