For smaller, advanced manufacturers looking to expand facilities in the greater Chicago area, there is a manufacturing center just two hours from the city that performs every bit as well in supporting a new business as it does in helping to establish it. Starke County, Indiana, has a population of about 23,000, and here, people are known for rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done.
“We work hard to cultivate good working relationships with the companies we bring to the area and do everything in our power to ensure that they prosper,” says Special Projects Coordinator Ron Gifford. “People come here because it is a lovely location, and they can have a high standard of living for much less money than in the big cities.” Even better, local manufacturers are always in search of good skilled labor and industry expertise, making the job market fertile and dynamic.
There are many pluses to putting down roots in this up-and-coming county. New industries appreciate its generous tax abatement program and the ample support offered by the Starke County Economic Development Foundation in collaboration with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Together, the two entities assist in arranging partial state funding towards any special requirements companies might need to establish themselves. These contributions can take the form of tax credits on the number of jobs created, training support costs, and much more. Each community here has an industrial park, and about four hundred acres of industrial-zoned land is ready for development.
Its county seat of Knox is close to Lake Michigan and Chicago and only seven miles from the intersection of U.S. Route 35 and U.S. Route 30. This ensures easy access to main routes while its four-lane highways ease commuting. It is common for residents to commute for up to an hour, as driving around here really is easy. There are also several excellent educational institutions nearby, like South Bend’s University of Notre Dame, about an hour away. Knox even boasts its own airport. Its 4400-foot runway can accommodate aircraft from turboprops to jets.
Thanks to its location, many large manufacturers have already grabbed the opportunity to settle in this water-rich area. Companies like WestRock, a global giant in paper and packaging manufacturing; American Oak Preserving Company, which produces home décor; Callisons, Inc., a top supplier of mint oils; Gary Poppins, a gourmet snack manufacturer; White Flyer’s Division of Reagent Chemical & Research, Inc., one of the world’s biggest shooting target producers; and many other operations. Its range of industries is surprisingly diverse with more in steel fabrication, automotive contributors and such.
Three large Mississippi tributaries, the Tippecanoe, Kankakee and the Yellow Rivers, give the county an air of abundance. Its lakes offer all the typical water fun and activities, while reserves and wetland conservation areas provide peace and tranquility in nature. Miles of well-tended hiking trails wind their way through the countryside, and a community garden gives locals their own patch of land on which to establish vegetable gardens. A number of townships surround and include the city of Knox and the towns of Hamlet and North Judson.
“When asked what brings them here, many of the newer residents will tell you it is the people. Our community is close-knit, and that gives even new arrivals a sense of belonging because there is always something happening,” Ron says.
The Starke County Economic Development Foundation has been a proud part of the area since 1985. As many of the surrounding counties had already established similar offices, the foundation arrived on the scene comparatively late. By then, there were a few models from which to choose. “This entity decided to go about the county’s economic development in a completely different, visionary way, and it’s been very successful,” says Ron proudly.
Part of its original strategy was to award Indiana tax credits to individuals and businesses which contributed to the organization. It proved a stroke of genius, and today, the Starke County Economic Development Foundation is going from strength to strength. This is not the only reason for its success, however. Its business-minded approach to settling new businesses here has been second-to-none.
Years ago, an industrial fertilizer manufacturer needed rail access to get raw materials in and ship finished products out. There was no access anywhere near its facility, despite the Norfolk Southern railway line that ran near the industrial area. The owner approached the Foundation, and with funding from many investors, including the U.S. Department of Commerce, city coffers, the county, and others, the lead track was installed and allows the business to flourish to this day. The new railway line attracted two more companies that have made a big success in Knox and ensured continued interest in manufacturing facilities near the railway line.
“Some communities look at railway lines as burdens, but here, we see them as really good assets,” says Ron.
While the county’s roughly twenty-two industrial contributors add greatly to the local economy, Starke County’s agricultural sector is still its biggest contributor. Farmers here produce corn, soy beans, and interestingly, mint. Once the largest producer of the herb, the county is now around the third-largest in the United States, Ron tells us. The mint oils are extracted and sold to be used in everything from gum to toothpaste. “Mint needs very specific soil conditions, and we have the ideal soil here,” says Ron.
The Directors of the Foundation are represented by diverse members from banks, industry, government, and utility providers. This has served the county particularly well as each sector provides a different perspective to the shared mission of developing the county. It can be particularly proud of its executive directors including several who served for about ten years, offering stability in leadership.
The county offers several institutions of higher learning in a one-hour radius, including three nearby Ivy Tech Community College campuses. The county is also blessed with accessible, top-quality hospitals in the local and surrounding areas. “To this end, there is a new regional initiative between three urban and four rural counties. This will support the greater region’s growth,” says Ron.
Here, counties are only too well aware of the fact that they are stronger together and are working to empower themselves and each other. Moreover, local communities are on a mission to make the county a wonderful place for younger generations to raise families.
Starke County is also in the process of applying for Indiana’s Stellar Communities’ grant. A few million dollars are given by various state agencies to a select community in which the leaders have proven the needs of each town and have suggestions for improving these. Teamwork is a very important factor here, and this is something in which the county is well-versed. “Receiving this grant would allow us to make numerous improvements in our area,” Ron says.
Living here is not only about quality of life. The area offers value that is unbelievable to those from the cities. Many young families can afford to buy their own, spacious homes and have enough cash available to live comfortably. “People often can’t believe their eyes when they see how much they get here for their money. They often would never have believed it was possible until they see our reasonable property prices,” says Ron.
Further government investment in the area would also mean more modern property development, ensuring an even bigger choice of housing. Another positive aspect of living in this welcoming community is the fact that, in Starke County, people choose their own pace of living with plenty of time to spend on recreation or with friends and family.
In Starke County, communities take special pride in looking out for the vulnerable amongst them. “We have an active Humane Society and a pretty well-endowed community foundation that offers grants to not-for-profit organizations, supporting them in a variety of charitable functions. Per capita, we probably have more social service agencies than most. They cover just about everything you could possibly need,” says Ron.
There are also groups working to improve health statistics, as well as a young professionals group, and many others working to make the county a great place to live. The chamber of commerce’s Leadership Starke County initiative is focused on creating more understanding of how the county functions and how people can make a meaningful contribution. Another part of the foundation’s commitment to involving people in the local economy is skills development.
“We were working to close the skills gap before anyone was even using the phrase,” Ron says. The result is Starke County Initiative for Lifelong Learning (SCILL) which is its workforce training division.
SCILL offers three training programs in which automobile technology, welding, automation, robotics, and equipment maintenance are explored and taught. The best part is that many students complete this two-year program and immediately enter the workforce. The foundation also offers two of the programs as adult learning courses.
“Our welding program has been running for seven years. We find that our adult intake is mainly from the unemployment rolls. After twelve weeks of training and learning valuable skills, we then place them into paid positions on completion. We’re really on the way to solving unemployment through skills training,” says Ron, who has served as the program director since 2015.
The foundation’s workforce development arm has had a positive impact on the region’s economy. With its rock-solid dedication to existing and new industries, this county’s fantastic work ethic and quality of life should continue to draw industries to its industrial parks and people to its communities.