Field Notes is a series of TIP Strategies interviews with leaders across the country exploring pressing economic, workforce, and community development issues.
In February 2020, Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. (GFW) engaged TIP Strategies to create an economic development plan that would guide Fort Wayne-Allen County, Indiana, for the next 10 years. The resulting plan, Allen County Together (ACT), was immediately put into action by GFW. We recently followed up with Ellen Cutter, the organization’s Chief Economic Development Officer, to provide progress updates and to further explore Fort Wayne’s innovation efforts.
Q1. What makes GFW so successful as an economic development organization?
Greater Fort Wayne Inc. is focused on delivering results, and we know that every project requires strong partnerships. Each year, our team gets out in front of 10,000 community members (in groups large and small) to talk about ACT, and how they can get involved.
In 2024, we will celebrate our 10-year anniversary. It’s remarkable how far Fort Wayne-Allen County has come over the last decade. We’ve exceeded $2 billion in building permit valuation, a new record, and downtown Fort Wayne has been transformed with $1.3 billion in private investment. Allen County has fully reversed a 30-year trend of brain drain, and we are now the second-fastest growing metro in the Great Lakes Region. We’re seeing the results throughout the community, with the Town of Huntertown and the City of New Haven posting record numbers for new housing permits.
A few years ago, we conducted a poll of our business community and found that 94 percent of respondents feel Allen County is on the right track. Further, GFW’s strong community engagement drives our organization’s reputation. Our business community describes GFW as (1) being an effective organization producing real results, and (2) bringing a fresh, innovative, and inclusive approach to the traditional chamber of commerce model.
We are successful because we work as one team in Allen County.
Q2. What big wins has GFW achieved recently?
Each year, the GFW team visits more than 500 businesses in Allen County. We source our business expansion project pipeline through these on-site visits and through the relationships that develop over time. GFW leads monthly project coordination meetings to track our attraction, retention, and expansion projects and leads with our extended economic development team. Indiana Economic Development Corporation, City of Fort Wayne, City of New Haven, Allen County, Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, Northeast Indiana Works, and other partners participate so we can ensure each project is receiving exemplary service.
I’d love to highlight a few of our locally owned companies that are expanding:
- Fort Wayne Metals. This locally headquartered company is driving innovation in the field of medical-grade wire. With about 1,110 existing jobs in Allen County, they plan to add more than 300 high-wage jobs.
- Do it Best Corp. As the state’s largest privately held company, Do it Best Corp. needed to modernize its headquarters for talent attraction purposes. They found a home at Electric Works, a $280 million redevelopment of our historic General Electric campus, just south of Downtown Fort Wayne.
- Premiere Truck. This family-owned company is a great example of how a growing economy means more opportunities for local businesses to grow as well. They are on their third headquarters expansion, growing to 165 employees, and are expanding to new locations across the country.
Q3. How is innovation impacting the community’s economy?
Innovation is embedded in Fort Wayne’s identity—just give “what was invented in Fort Wayne” a Google. We have a sizable defense and aerospace industry, which arose from legacy radio communications systems. Today, it’s more diverse. BAE just opened their second Fort Wayne location, exploring how hybrid electric technology currently used in buses can be deployed on aircraft. L3Harris designs, tests, and manufactures weather and missile defense satellites here.
Talent is a key driver of our ability to grow our aerospace industry. We have 1.5 million college students within 200 miles of Fort Wayne, with 216,000 annual graduates from R1 and R2 universities alone. We are fortunate to have Purdue University Fort Wayne and Indiana Tech, both engineering powerhouses, among other colleges and universities, growing in Allen County.
Q4. Amazon recently opened a robotics fulfillment center in Fort Wayne. How can economic development organizations find a balance between technological innovation and jobs?
Amazon just cut the ribbon on their largest robotics fulfillment center, globally, in Fort Wayne. It’s their third investment in Allen County over a three-year period. Robotics are replacing the pick-and-pull approach to order fulfillment with robotic assistance bringing the products directly to workers. It’s remarkable.
Technology is critical to our ability to grow our local economy and GDP. Even with a population growth rate twice that of the state and the nation, workforce remains a challenge. Technology bridges the gap. We have a goal in our ACT plan to create 2,500 new jobs in R&D, IT, headquarters operations, and other high-wage fields over the next decade. I’m so optimistic about the trajectory we are on. TIP was such a help to our community to solidify our plan for the coming years.
Q5. How do organizations and institutions outside of government and industry contribute to Greater Fort Wayne’s innovation ecosystem?
Philanthropy and foundations play such an important role! We’re so fortunate to have servant leaders who are committed to growing opportunities for our next generation leaders and businesses. We meet regularly with our major foundations to update them on ACT progress and try to find mission-aligned partnership opportunities. For example, the Don Wood Foundation, which is committed to strengthening the manufacturing industry in the Midwest, is supporting efforts to strengthen our entrepreneurial ecosystem, a key piece of ACT.
GFW also helps connect our partners with significant grant opportunities. The Lilly Endowment’s recent College and Community Collaboration initiative has made up to $300 million available statewide for 35 residential colleges and universities, up to $25 million each. The program’s goal is to leverage private investment and promote community partnerships that enhance quality of place for residents and students. In Allen County, Indiana Tech and University of St. Francis are exploring impactful partnerships for the Lilly Endowment’s consideration. Stay tuned!
Economic development is truly a team sport. When the business community, government, and philanthropy are aligned, great things happen.
As chief economic development officer for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., Ellen Cutter manages business retention, business attraction, downtown development, and workforce development activities. Prior to joining GFW in October 2016, she served as director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne where she collaborated with GFW Inc. on the Northeast Indiana Target Industries report and acted as the project manager of the “Road to One Million Plan” for the IEDC Regional Cities program, which secured $42 million for quality of place projects. Prior to working locally, Ellen served as principal and director of research for Market Street Services, a community and economic development consulting firm based in Atlanta. Her eight-year tenure included strategic planning and technical assistance in more than 20 states and dozens of communities ranging from Des Moines, Iowa, to Austin, Texas, and the State of West Virginia.
A Chicago-area native, Ellen is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, and she earned her Master of City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech, with a focus on economic development and land use. She is a member of the American Planning Association and is an AICP-certified urban planner.
Credit: Cover image of aerial view of Fort Wayne courtesy of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc.