Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

June 25, 2011

Entice to Invest

Mayor says he will keep improving quality of life to attract jobs

By Daniel Human
Tribune staff writer

— Improvements to quality of life in Kokomo will continue to be a major focus for city officials looking to improve the local economy, said Mayor Greg Goodnight.

A report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week consistently placed Kokomo at the bottom of 363 metro areas for economy-related rankings. However, that did not sway Goodnight from his platform of improving living quality as a way to attract business investment.

Rather than change directions because of a report he said was skewed because Kokomo was compared to major metros such as New York, Goodnight plans to stick to what he said has been working for a lot of other cities in the U.S.: improving entertainment and aesthetics to make communities desirable places to live.

“There’s a report talking about the metropolitan areas that are growing,” he said. “They’re those that are capturing young families, ones that young families find attractive. It made me feel better that we’re heading on the right track.”

‘Jobs Move to People’

Goodnight was referring to a report in Forbes Magazine released earlier this month.

Forbes, citing U.S. Census data, says cities with the fastest growing populations of children ages 5 to 17 — Raleigh, N.C., Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. were noted — also have some of the fastest growing job markets.

Michael Hicks, director of Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said improving quality of life in towns is an essential long-term investment for attracting businesses.

“In the short run, people move to jobs,” he said. “In the long run, jobs move to people.”

Recent work in the city that intends to improve quality of life has included:

• A Revolving Loan Fund that has helped several restaurants and stores open in the past year

• The addition and expansion of bicycle and walking paths

• The conversion of one-way roads to two-way roads downtown to allow better traffic flow

• The addition of a trolley service as public transit

• Bump outs, landscaping and other aesthetic work that has extended beyond downtown

Moving people to the Kokomo area is a major concern for City Hall, businesses and groups such as the Kokomo Downtown Association.

Goodnight said last week too many people work in the city but live outside of Howard County.

Smoothing A Rough Decade

Census estimates show Howard County’s population between 2000 and 2010 dipped about 2.6 percent to 82,752 people.

The population decrease was common among manufacturing towns in Indiana and the Midwest. Madison County lost 1.3 percent of its population, Delaware County lost 0.9 percent and Grant County lost 4.6 percent.

Job availability has been a major driver of the populations.

Employment in Kokomo peaked in early 2005 before the city lost almost a quarter of its jobs, according to the Conference of Mayors. The organization projects it will take until 2021 and beyond for the city, which in May had 10.5 percent unemployment, to make a complete job recovery.

Despite some of the dreary expectations for Kokomo, Hicks said, the city is well poised for growth and serves as an example for what other communities should do in terms of economic development.

Another element that has been drawing more young families, and the jobs that follow later on, is cost of living.

That should not be much of a concern for Howard County.

Homes so far in 2011 have sold at a median of $70,000, which was about 35.5 percent less than the state’s median of $108,500.

What Kokomo, like the rest of the U.S., needs to worry about with attracting businesses is the work force, Hicks said.

Many companies continue to receive floods of applications for job openings but cannot find qualified applicants, he said.

“There’s no happy way to say this, we have an awful lot of workers who are unemployed who don’t have the skills needed to move into modern manufacturing jobs,” he said. “The result of that is a really high number of workers who aren’t employable elsewhere.”

Work Not Unnoticed

The quality-of-life work Kokomo organizations have done has earned them recognition.

During the Main Street Conference in 2010, the city and downtown association received three awards.

The city received the Design of Downtown Public Improvements award for improving public areas downtown. The downtown council’s chairwoman won Board Member of the Year. And the city and downtown association shared the Community Impact Award for their joint project of planting flowers in the spring.

Kokomo also has received national recognition recently for overall improvements.

USA Today and Forbes, the magazine that once called Kokomo a “dying city,” published stories in May explaining positive economic growth in the city.

Area Development magazine in May gave a Gold Shovel award to Indiana because of the business investments companies made in the state in 2010. At the top of the list was Chrysler’s plans to spend more than $1 billion upgrading its transmission lines in Kokomo to make eight- and nine-speed transmissions.

• Daniel Human is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. He can be reached at 765-454-8570 or at daniel.human@kokomotribune.com.