Laden with trails and parks, and just a half-hour’s drive from Fort Wayne, Adams County is the ideal community in Indiana for those who seek the best of both worlds…
“I have an outsider’s perspective, because I didn’t grow up in the area,” says Trevor Hobbs, Executive Director at the Adams County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC). “I was really shocked when I first moved here, with what the county had to offer. It is the best of both worlds – being both a small town community and very close to the second largest city in the state. We have a good sense of community that we find in small towns. People know each other; people are nice to each other. There is a small town atmosphere, but at the same time you have all the amenities of a big city that is half an hour away.”
Adams County and Fort Wayne share a symbiotic relationship. Residents of the county of 35,000 can make the easy drive down the highway to Fort Wayne to experience the restaurants, theatres, and nightlife, while Fort Wayne residents can visit Adams County for the tranquil environment it provides to nature lovers, and the events and festivals it offers as part of its one-of-a-kind culture.
For instance, about a quarter of Adams County’s population are Swiss Amish. The City of Berne hosts an annual Swiss Days celebration every summer, to honor and share its heritage through food, music, and craftsmanship. There are other festivals held throughout the year around the landmark clock tower in downtown Berne, Indiana. The massive tower, which chimes three times a day and can be seen from miles away, is a replica of Bern, Switzerland’s medieval Zytglogge tower. Many Berne residents still speak Bernese German, a Swiss German dialect.
According to Northeast Indiana Public Radio, settlers came to Berne to be free to practice their religious beliefs, which many hold to this day. Parking lots have places for people to keep their horses and carriages.
Meanwhile, the City of Decatur (which holds the county seat), hosts a Scottish Highland Games festival, Germanfest, a summer concert series, and a number of other cultural and arts-based initiatives.
Perhaps most notable is the annual Decatur Sculpture Tour, which begins in June and features sculptures on display around the city until April (10 months). David Smith, a household name in the sculpting world and someone known as the father of metal sculpture, was born and raised in Decatur in the 1900s. Another local artist, Greg Mendez, was inspired by Smith to pursue a postsecondary education in the art. The award-winning artist then had the idea to begin a sculpture tour in Decatur, and worked with city officials to make that a reality in 2012.
The displays are created by artists from around the country and chosen by a city panel. Though the unveiling weekend is a particularly popular time to come and see the artwork, meet with the artists, and even purchase a piece, the sculptures are still free for the public to view almost all year long.
“It’s cold out here today, but if you go downtown, you may see people from out of town walking around with a little map, taking the sculpture tour. It happens every day without fail: I look outside and see people on the tour, and that is one thing that Decatur has really branded ourselves on in Adams County,” says Kenneth Meyer, Mayor of Decatur.
Adams County has three core industries and several burgeoning businesses. It has historically been an agricultural community, but is also known for advanced manufacturing (specifically vehicle parts, including boats and RV manufacturing), and also furniture making in the City of Berne, known for its Amish craftsmanship.
However, the largest employer in the county is actually Adams Memorial Hospital and Oncology Center, and there are many seniors’ residences as well that make healthcare a growing industry in the region. Additionally, a major telecomm provider also has a large base in Adams County. “Even though we are known for agriculture and advanced manufacturing, we have a wide array of opportunities,” Hobbs states.
That being said, coming from an agricultural background, most Adams County residents grew up on a farm and have therefore had a strong work ethic instilled in them from an early age. “Companies that locate here are thriving, and they credit a lot of that to the workforce. We are having a couple of big expansions coming up from companies that had opportunities to move, but really wanted to make it work here because facilities in this region are producing better than their facilities elsewhere, and I credit that to the workers,” Hobbs adds.
For instance, a barge manufacturer with operations in Fort Wayne as well as in another state has recently decided to consolidate and expand in Berne. One of the county’s top 10 manufacturers is now embarking on a major expansion, valued at upwards of $50 million dollars, while other companies are in talks to follow suit.
At the moment, Decatur boasts a food-grade certified industrial park that is shovel-ready. The ACEDC welcomes companies that are interested in opening a location in a business-friendly county, and is prepared to set them up with all of the information and potential funding opportunities available so they can be successful in Adams County. For instance, the ACEDC has revolving loans funds available as “gap funding” to invest in job creation for local agricultural or commercial businesses. The loans have been used to revitalize downtown Decatur, which has had four new restaurants open up in the past year.
“We work pretty hard to connect all the dots with the varying initiatives out there, whether it is non-profit, industry, or community leadership. We help where we can to give employers all resources available to them for workforce development,” James Teeple, Director of Workforce Development at ACEDC tells us.
Connect to Careers, an Adams County workforce organization, holds a new workforce summit every other year which brings community members, educational institutions, educators and businesses together. The first one was in 2018 and the next is scheduled for 2020. The think tank will bring multiple stakeholders together to discuss the opportunities and challenges in workforce development and come up with community-based solutions.
One of the county’s current goals is to bolster its workforce development through partnerships with post-secondary institutions and a new brick-and-mortar adult education center, which is projected to open in late 2020. Adams County offers its hard-working residents quality school systems and public libraries.
There is also a manufacturing alliance between Adams County and its neighbors, Wells County, called AWMA (Adams Wells Manufacturing Alliance), with a mission to educate the community’s youth about career pathways in advanced manufacturing. This includes opportunities for well-paying jobs that offer tuition reimbursement, should the students choose to pursue higher learning down the road. AWMA gives student residents a modified Myers-Briggs career aptitude test based on the sorting hat – of Harry Potter fame – concept.
“We also have an early college credit program at Bellmont High School in Decatur. I talked to a young man over the Christmas break who is a senior in high school, has finished a four-year program, and he is not only taking some college courses online right now, but when he graduates from high school and begins attending the university, he will start as a third-year student. We have summer employees that work for the city who went through that program, and almost all of them will at least finish their first year of college while still in high school,” mentions Mayor Meyer.
Certainly, there is no shortage of things to do for young adults and families looking to raise children in the area. In Decatur, the city used a Department of Natural Resources grant to develop a wetland area into a nature preserve with trails running through it. The trails will continue to be developed over the next five years and eventually connect the entire city, and county, via a scenic path. The new St. Mary’s Nature Preserve is currently open to the public, and the city will also be developing the riverfront to further enhance quality of life.
“I was raised here, and I see Adams County as a good conglomeration of rural communities that are heavily based in agriculture, very family-oriented, with a very good work ethic. There are a lot of outdoor, open spaces surrounding the communities that are conducive to activities such as hunting and fishing. There are many benefits to raising a family in the school system,” says Teeple.
In fact, both Berne and Decatur are recognized as among Indiana’s safest cities, and collaborate frequently.
Hanna Nuttman Park showcases Adams County’s sense of community. The City of Decatur embarked on a crowdfunding campaign to raise $1 million dollars for the renovation of the cherished community park and its baseball diamonds. It has already reached over half its goal, and the project will be completed by this summer.
In another example, The Road to One Million was formed to apply for Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative grant, which “seeks to make Indiana a magnet for talent attraction by funding transformative quality of place projects,” according to the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. By coming together, Northeast Indiana was able to win a $42 million state grant to use toward quality of life initiatives, where that money was only a maximum of 20 percent of the total money that could be leveraged. Every county in the region – including Adams County, which put the money toward its trail system – benefited through this shared effort.
Indeed, when communities, companies, and even counties collaborate, they can achieve impressive goals together. The Adams County Economic Development Corporation works to strengthen these collaborations wherever there is an opportunity, to the benefit of the booming county and its residents.