Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Building on a National Brand

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
South Bend Regional Chamber on Wednesday, December 28, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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Last week, I took a look back at some of the great successes in 2016 related to residential, hospitality and retail development. Today, I’ll take a closer look the office, industrial, utility and health care industries as well as some of the key infrastructure projects that helped drive development in the past year.

The office market saw some nice activity in 2016. Advance Centers for Cancer Care will soon call One Michiana Square home after a major renovation. Main Street Row in South Bend is undergoing a face lift. Catalyst One and Two have opened in Ignition Park with the University of Notre Dame Turbomachinery Laboratory as a primary tenant among several others. Construction has also begun in the Renaissance District on the former Studebaker buildings.

On the industrial front, General Stamping and Sheet Metal neared completion on its new Blackthorn location. Pepsi, Chase Plastics and Fed-Ex moved into new space at Ameriplex 80/90. AM General announced plans to occupy a new 200,000-square-foot building at Ameriplex. Patrick Industries announced it would occupy the former Affinia Building on 12th Street in Mishawaka. Total Quality Logistics expanded in Blackthorn, and 3B Tech said it would occupy the former Invacare Warehouse at Blackthorn.

Three major health care projects progressed. The Department of Veterans Affairs began construction on its new $38 million clinic, and Beacon Health began construction on the $50 million Memorial Children’s Hospital. Beacon also completed construction and opened the new Beacon Health and Fitness Facility on Beacon Parkway.

A number of major infrastructure projects aimed at supporting development also advanced in 2016. Those included a $200 million investment aimed at improving the Indiana Toll Road, major improvements to Indiana 23, the implementation of Smart Streets in South Bend, and the elimination of one more stoplight on U.S. 31. Also, the South Bend International Airport advanced plans for its international services and a new fixed-based operator opened at the airport.

In addition, a number of key utility projects were advanced or completed in 2016. AEP constructed solar facilities in Mishawaka and New Carlisle. St. Joseph Energy began construction on a $500 million natural gas generating power plant in New Carlisle. The University of Notre Dame moved forward on a major geothermal project on campus and announced plans for a hydroelectric facility in Seitz Park in downtown South Bend. Mishawaka made plans for future water needs with the acquisition of property that will be the home a new well field on the north side of the city.

Innovation Park at Notre Dame announced plans for a $13 million project to add a second building. The St. Joseph County Public Library announced plans for $5.5 million expansion in downtown South Bend. Indiana University South Bend completed renovations of Northside Hall and the Administration Building, and Notre Dame completed construction of a new boathouse near the Farmers Market.

Beyond all of those projects, Notre Dame is perhaps in the busiest construction period in its history with more than $712 million in planned improvements. Work is underway on the Campus Crossroads project, Jenkins Hall and Nanovic Hall, the Hesburgh Library, two undergraduate residence halls, and an interdisciplinary research facility.

The projects I mentioned today as well as those mentioned last week are important and contribute to a growing economy. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead to keep pace with our competition across the country and around the world. Another year like this past one and it will be hard for the outside world not to take notice. For more information about projects happening in the region, visit

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Housing, Hotels Rise in 2016

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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The Indiana Regional Cities Initiative was designed to help communities across Indiana come together to transform their regions into nationally recognized destinations to live, work and play. Our region was one of three regions selected, and 2016 will be remembered as an important turning point in growing that national brand.

Our end-of-the-year report card reveals high employment, low unemployment, rising wages, growing population and some $300 million in new private investment on key projects around the area. Local, regional and national investors have taken note and are buying in and investing in the bright future that lies ahead in our region.

Residential construction will dominate most year-end reviews for the area. More than 2,400 new residential units, most in the urban core of South Bend or Mishawaka were announced, were under construction or were completed in 2016. In Mishawaka, the River Rock project was completed in the downtown, adding 70 units to the marketplace.

Elsewhere, construction should begin early in 2017 on several other downtown Mishawaka housing projects, including the River Walk Apartments, River Front Forge Condominiums (33 units), and the Mill at Ironworks Plaza (230 units). Add to those, construction at GrandView (200 units), Fir Road North (400 units) and Fir Road South (516 units).

But that tells only a part of the story, South Bend has a housing boom of its own underway. Recently, the former Hoffman Hotel (48 units) and the Colfax & Hill Development (17 units) have opened. In the midst of construction is the renovation of The LaSalle (67 units), the JMS Building (52 units) and the former Chase Tower (83 units). On the drawing board are the East Bank Flats (12 units), the Wharf site Project (24 units), River Race Flats (32 units), the Commerce Center (250 units), the former Madison Center (55 units), Berlin Flats (120 units), and the Hibberd Building (12-16 units). Another 90 residential units are planned on the former Transpo site, just east of downtown. Also, the 202 units at The Pointe in South Bend experienced a major renovation in 2016.

Two new hotels opened in 2016, the Holiday Inn and Conference Center on Douglas Road in Mishawaka and the Motel 6 in Roseland. Construction is now underway at the Aloft Hotel and Courtyard by Marriott Downtown South Bend and the Holiday Inn at Toscana Park, the Home 2 Suites on Edison and the Candlewood Suites on Douglas, all in Mishawaka. Another hotel is planned for construction at Blackthorn and the Inn at Saint Mary's experienced a major renovation in 2016.

On the retail side, Wilshire Plaza in Mishawaka experienced the biggest transformation as it added Sky Zone, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Christopher & Banks, Carter's Osh Kosh, and DSW over the past year.

Our stock is on the rise. We are anticipating a strong 2017 when you add the announced projects above to those nearing completion. Today, people all around Indiana are taking note and in the future people around the country will also realize all our region has to offer.

But we've touched on just a part of the story. Next week I'll take a closer look at the office, industrial, utility and health care sectors as well as some of the key infrastructure projects driving development in our area.

Also published in the December 21, 2016 South Bend Tribune

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Early Childhood Learning a Top Priority

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber on Wednesday, November 30, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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In Indiana, a recent focus on building the necessary infrastructure and creating the right business climate has positioned the state to be a leader in job creation in the Midwest and across the country.

But business and policy leaders recognize that without the people to fill important positions in the employment pipeline, the state won’t reach its full potential. And they know that developing people begins with getting kids off to the right start with quality prekindergarten programs.

I was lucky. When I was very young, I was blessed with some outstanding learning opportunities at home, at my church, at the YMCA, and at my elementary school prior to entering kindergarten. I began school with a good educational foundation and a strong support network at home. That helped me excel in elementary, junior high, high school and college.

Those experiences prepared me well for the workplace and helped me succeed in the various jobs I’ve held through the years. Many of you likely have a similar experience. Unfortunately, these days many people do not. Many lack the opportunities prior to kindergarten to build that necessary foundation and spend a lifetime trying to play catch-up.

Today, Indiana is one of only eight states without a publicly funded pre-K program. Only 36 percent of Indiana’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs, compared with 46 percent nationally. And Hoosier families currently spend a higher share of their incomes on early childhood care and education than do families in other states, about $7,500 annually.

The need is great. For example, just 31 percent of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds attend public or private preschool/prekindergarten programs, as compared with 41 percent of their peers from higher-income families. Indiana’s share of children from low-income families is substantially higher than the national average — 62 percent of children ages zero to 5 are from low-income families, compared with a national average of 47 percent.

State leaders have taken the first steps to implement a statewide pre-K program. In 2014, Indiana lawmakers created a voluntary Early Education Pilot Program that offers prekindergarten in five counties. Elkhart and St. Joseph counties were passed over for that pilot. The pilot currently serves only 1,585 children, but the effort signifies a significant step toward developing a permanent state-funded pre-K program.

A statewide program will likely contain three priorities: creating or expanding existing highly rated child care programs, recruiting and retaining a well-trained preschool workforce, and funding infrastructure changes where needed.

But legislative leaders are advocating a go-slow approach to expanding the state-funded preschool program and warn there might be little money to boost school spending in the next state budget. Widespread rollout could carry a big price tag. Currently 65 out of 92 counties in Indiana have no state preschool investment.

Data from recent studies suggest that Hoosier families are unable to access, afford or realize the benefits associated with high-quality programs without an expanded state role in funding and regulation. It will be one of the most important debates in the 2017 legislative session.

Business leaders will have an opportunity to learn more at a “Success Starts Early” breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 9, at WNIT Television, 300 Jefferson Blvd., South Bend. There, leaders will learn more about how making a commitment to high-quality pre-K programs can yield a high return on investment and contribute to a stronger economy.

Representatives from Early Learning Indiana and local leaders will share information and answer questions regarding what is slated to be a hot topic in the next legislative session. Interested parties can register at For more information on pre-K programs in Indiana, visit

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is Housing Boom in Area Related to Population Growth?

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, October 26, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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I had an opportunity last week to join the celebration of the grand opening of the River Rock Apartment Project on West Mishawaka Avenue in Mishawaka. The $15 million project includes 73 one- and two-bedroom units close to downtown and the popular Mishawaka Riverwalk.

The site has special meaning to me and my family. My great-grandfather started his business on the site in 1932 and was a prominent part of the block for next 25 years. Over time, the block included a number of notable landmarks like the North Side Theater, Joey’s Restaurant, several apartment and residential buildings and municipal parking. The block, however, is probably best known as the site of the former Pleasureland Museum.

Mishawaka envisioned something greater for the downtown and the riverfront area and the Redevelopment Commission worked to assemble the land for future development opportunities. A downturn in the economy and several starts and stops on other downtown projects left people wondering about whether the site could ever reach its full potential.

A private sector developer teamed up with the city and took great risk to make the project happen. That developer may have been the only one who thought the concept could become a reality. Fast forward and you have a finished project with 63 percent of the units occupied and the developer looking at other downtown opportunities.

Elsewhere, construction should begin early in 2017 on several other downtown Mishawaka housing projects, including the River Walk Apartments, River Front Forge Condominiums (33 units), and the Mill at Ironworks Plaza (230 units). Add to those construction at Grandview (200 units), Fir Road North (400 units) and Fir Road South (516 units), and Mishawaka is going through a mini high-density housing boom.

But that tells only part of the story. South Bend has a housing boom of its own underway. Recently, the former Hoffman Hotel (48 units) and the Colfax & Hill Development (17 units) have opened. In the midst of construction is the renovation of The LaSalle (67 units), the JMS Building (52 units) and the former Chase Tower (83 units). On the drawing board are the East Bank Flats (12 units), the Wharf site Project (24 units), River Race Flats (32 units), the Commerce Center (250 units), the former Madison Center (55 units) and Berlin Flats (120 units). Another 90 residential units are planned on the former Transpo site, just east of downtown.

Projects like those above, especially in the downtown areas, are complicated. They take a significant amount of time to develop and require the right public-private partnership to make them a success. Developers could reap great rewards or could experience significant losses. These developers feel the great momentum happening in South Bend and Mishawaka and hope the timing of these developments helps them capitalize. Constructions workers should remain busy in the foreseeable future.

The high-density housing boom in the urban core is a result of efforts to attract and retain young people and give them more urban options for living. Their efforts are critical to the efforts to grow population in our area as each contributes to our area having attractive places for people to work, live and play.

New construction in South Bend and Mishawaka has both communities positioned to capitalize on new people discovering our region. How can you help? Have a former classmate, son or daughter, family member or friend not living in the area, make sure they know about the great new opportunities that await them here in our region.

Source: South Bend Tribune

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Role of Business in Talent Development

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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So who is responsible for making sure today’s students are prepared for tomorrow’s jobs? Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. The truth is that responsibility doesn’t fall to any one individual or organization but instead rests in widespread community collaborative effort.

Traditionally, the bulk of that burden has fallen to our schools and the teachers, administrators and guidance counselors. They’ve been tasked with giving students a broad knowledge base, helping students hone specific skills, identifying student interests and encouraging career paths that align with those special skills and knowledge.

Parents play a critical role too, often influencing and guiding students as they seek to answer that age-old question of what they want to be when they grow up. Parents also provide that crucial home support base that supplements the work going on in the schools with their children.

Businesses are recognizing they also must help develop that pipeline of workers. A recovering economy with low unemployment has left a fierce competition for talent. As the quality of applications for open positions has deteriorated, businesses know that the status quo won’t do and that the time is now to roll up their sleeves and make sure future employees know about opportunities in particular industries.

Many of yesterday’s most reliable positions and industries are finding it hard to attract young talent to open opportunities. Positions like manufacturing workers, mechanics, plumbers, electricians and other skilled trades are currently filled by an aging workforce that will need to be replaced in the near future.

The nature of many of the positions has changed over the years, and the perception of those jobs doesn’t always match the current reality. Last week in St. Joseph County, four school corporations, 30 businesses and more than 600 students came together to help change that perception on Manufacturing Day 2016.

The local effort was organized through a partnership that includes the Chamber, National Tooling and Machining Association Michiana Chapter, Ivy Tech Community College, Purdue Polytechnic South Bend, South Bend Community School Corp. Career & Technical Education, Career Academy, Mishawaka High School, Penn High School and many manufacturers and supporting organizations who hosted tours and shared their stories with students.

Similar days were organized across the country, including other local efforts in Berrien and Cass counties in Michigan and Elkhart and Marshall counties in Indiana. Manufacturing remains a key part of our local economy, representing about 15 percent of our total workforce in St. Joseph County. That number is higher in neighboring counties like Elkhart.

During the course of the day, students visited with local businesses and Ivy Tech and had an opportunity to see first-hand the work environment and ask questions that ranged from pay and benefits to training requirements for specific positions.

nufacturing? Demand is driving the attention. Eighty-four percent of executives surveyed agree there is a talent shortage in the industry and six out of 10 open skilled production positions are unfilled due to this talent shortage Also, today’s manufacturing is technologically advanced, with ample use of automation, 3-D printing, robots and screen technology. And manufacturing jobs traditionally pay well. In the South Bend region, the annual average salary of manufacturing workers starts in the range of $33,000 to $40,000 with the ability to grow into positions that could average more than $75,000. Manufacturing employees also traditionally have long tenures on the job and most have medical benefits.

Manufacturing Day was a great example of what happens when businesses and schools come together to collaborate. The winners are the students who now have a better understanding of career options in our community. The community also wins, as the Manufacturing Day model is easily replicated with other high growth industries.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Regional Transportation Priority Moves Forward

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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Our transportation network is critical to the growth and development of the region. Over the years, community leaders have identified top transportation priorities then marshaled the resources to make those projects happen.

Construction of projects like the Indiana Toll Road, U.S. 31, U.S. 20, Indiana 23 and Indiana 331/Capital Avenue have all helped better connect our local communities and have especially helped our businesses move goods and services in and out of our region.

Because of the high costs often associated with the design, planning, right of way acquisition and construction, many of those projects have spanned long periods of time from the introduction of the concept to the final construction. For example, Capital Avenue was on the drawing board for about 50 years. U.S. 31 has been a priority for even longer.

In the last decade, major construction projects have been completed on U.S. 31 between South Bend and Indianapolis, cutting significant time off a trip to the capital city and making it much safer. Improvements on six stoplight intersections, two railroad crossings, 100 intersections and 200 driveways remain on the wish list.

In the 1950s, work began on the U.S. 31 Bypass around South Bend. In 1967, plans were made to extend U.S. 31 north from the state line to Interstate 94. Leaders saw the road as a vital artery to the region, connecting two busy interstate highways and opening up new development opportunities in the corridor.

In the early 1970s that construction began and portions of the roadway moved forward until it was interrupted in the late 1990s by a rare butterfly. The proposed roadway cut through an area that was the habitat of this endangered species. Construction was halted near Napier Avenue in Benton Harbor.

For close to 20 years, construction of the final phases, connecting the roadway to I-94, has been in limbo. Concerns over the butterfly habitat and the lack of adequate funding left the road’s future in jeopardy. In the meantime, businesses and consumers have longed for the completion of this important improvement.

Earlier this month, Michigan announced plans to move the project forward. The final phase of the U.S. 31 corridor project in Berrien County has been added to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s five-year plan. That plan includes an initial appropriation to finish right of way work for the corridor.

The completion of the original plan won’t happen overnight, but the good news is that for the first time in several decades, it’s on the priority list and back on the top of minds of legislative leaders from across Michigan thanks to the efforts of state Rep. Al Pscholka, MDOT Director Kirk Steudle, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

The project will be broken into three phases, including the connection of U.S. 31 to I-94, the replacing of the interchange at downtown Benton Harbor and the resurrecting of 10 miles of I-94 in this area. The project is estimated to cost $92 million.

Though the project sits across the state line, it is vital to the South Bend area. Southwest lower Michigan boasts numerous tourist destinations that have become popular get-a-ways for Indiana residents. And businesses see the I-94 connection as a key connection to important markets like Chicago, Detroit, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.

Our region is growing, and that includes the north part of the region in Cass and Berrien counties. The construction of this final link will position the region to better take advantage of future development opportunities.

Also published in the South Bend Tribune 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Teens Build Skills on Job

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, July 7, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (1)

I started mowing grass and shoveling snow in the neighborhood when I was very young. Shortly thereafter I began looking after neighborhood kids. I worked a regular shift at my family’s drugstore. I later cleaned the meat room at a grocery store, cashiered at a retail outlet and tried my hand in an Elkhart factory.

I wasn’t alone. Many of my friends and classmates also entered the workforce at a young age — bagging groceries, flipping burgers, scooping ice cream, delivering newspapers or lifeguarding at the local pool. The opportunities seemed plentiful and we had many chances to try our hands at different things.

My chief objective in those assignments was to make a few dollars. As I got older, I realized I needed money for those things I was most interested in.

At the same time, I was learning many valuable lessons about being in the workforce that I believe have helped me be a better employee, co-worker and boss. My education in the classroom was important. But the education I was getting in the workforce was also critical.

I learned a lot about responsibility, about problem solving, about critical thinking. My employer and our customers were counting on me, and I didn’t want to let them down. I learned about working in teams and about getting along with co-workers. I got a feel for what I was interested in, and more importantly what I wasn’t. My future career interests were largely shaped by those early experiences.

My story is not unlike most from my generation. But our story is proving to be very different than today’s young people who are preparing to enter the workforce. Employment among those between the ages of 16 and 19 is at its lowest point in decades according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And BLS predicts it will continue to decline over the next decade.

Overall, the labor force participation rate among all ages is 62.6 percent. (The labor force participation rate is those people either working or actively seeking work). Among 16- to 19-year-olds nationally, that rate is now just 34 percent, down almost 20 percent over the past 20 years.

Locally, only about 28 percent of those 16- to 19-year-olds eligible to participate are actually participating. The demands of school, sports and other extracurricular activities contribute to the declining numbers. In addition, fewer employment opportunities exist today. Many of those positions traditionally held by young people were filled by older adults during the height of the recession.

Employers’ chief complaint these days is about the workforce and the lack of soft skills, those personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. Many workers haven’t had the opportunities like I and others did when we were younger to develop those key skills in an entry level position.

Employers need to recognize the important role they play in the talent pipeline and once again make available entry level positions for young people seeking experience. Though youths may be raw in experience, their enthusiasm and exuberance as well as the fresh perspective from a new generation of worker can be an important asset for the company.

But the real responsibility lies with parents. Parents must encourage their children find a job to gain that valuable work experience. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or even in line with a student’s career aspirations, just something to give them those valuable life lessons. Young people have to start at the bottom and work their way up. Their long-term success and the long-term success of our economy depend on it.

Source: South Bend Tribune, July 6, 2016


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Community Needs to Get Behind New Superintendent

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, June 8, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)

On Tuesday night (June 7), the South Bend Community School Board took the final step in hiring Kenneth Spells as its new superintendent of schools with the approval of his contract. That action clears the way for Spells to join our community on July 1. I look forward to meeting him.

Spells takes over for Carole Schmidt, who is retiring after close to five years on the job. Schmidt has worked hard to advance the corporation in the midst of many challenges and leaves the corporation better than she found it.

Spells brings a strong background that includes experience as a teacher, coach, principal, superintendent and adjunct professor. He most recently served as the superintendent of the Alton School District in Alton, Ill.

Schmidt announced her retirement in December. The hiring of Spells caps a six-month process during which the school board hired a consultant to lead the process, sought public input on the necessary skills of a new superintendent, interviewed candidates, made an offer and approved the contact. And in just a few weeks, Spells will step into one of the most important CEO positions in the area.

Spells’ new responsibilities include the oversight of the corporation’s 39 schools, more than 1,100 employees and a budget that exceeds $230 million. More importantly, Spells’ focus will be on the success of the more than 18,000 students enrolled in the district.

As Spells readies for his move, it’s important the community also readies for his arrival. We should be ready to roll out the red carpet and welcome him and show our support to him and his administrative team as he prepares to lead the corporation at a really important time.

Success at the corporation is a team effort. Solid leadership is required, and strong partnerships are essential. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, staff, volunteers, the school board, business owners, community leaders, neighborhood advocates and others will all be part of the recipe for success.

Each has an important role to play and each has a vested interest in the success of the corporation. And each group should be ready to roll up its sleeves and do what they can to ensure Spells and our students succeed.

Declining enrollment, aging buildings, rising costs, shrinking revenues, the full implementation of property tax caps, increased competition and ever-changing education policy present great challenges. But Spells has answered the call and is prepared to guide the corporation through those choppy waters.

Some hard decisions lie ahead, and people won’t agree with every decision Spells makes along the way. That is inevitable. But how we react as a community will be key to our success moving forward. We can’t get sidetracked by second guessing from the sidelines; those who are critical must bring real suggestions and alternative solutions to the most complex of problems. We’ve hired Spells to be the CEO, and we must allow him to make CEO-like decisions.

So what else can we do? We need strong advocates. Be a champion for your community and for your school corporation. This isn’t the same corporation that it was five and 10 years ago. Though some of the challenges are greater, there are some great stories of success to build upon.

We are in a battle for talent with communities across the country. We must continue to grow our population to succeed long term. A strong school corporation is a critical tool to attracting that top talent and growing that population. The business community looks forward to welcoming Spells and joining him in his efforts to help our students be successful.

Jeff Rea is president and CEO of the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Census Estimate a Good Sign for Region

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)

Census data help the state and communities make some assumptions about their overall health.

In 1902, the Census Bureau was formed for the purpose of counting the number of people in the United States. The data collected would become valuable for important tasks like allocating federal funds each year and determining the seats of the U.S. House of Representatives to the states based on their population. The data is to be collected every 10 years.

Throughout the other years, the bureau conducts dozens of other censuses and surveys, including the American Community Survey, the U.S. Economic Census and the Current Population Survey. The various censuses and surveys conducted by the bureau today help allocate more than $400 billion in federal money every year and help states, local communities and businesses make informed decisions.

The bureau has recently released its 2015 population estimates. Indiana’s growth remains slow, with more than half of Indiana counties losing population. Overall, Indiana has grown at about 2 percent since the last decennial census in 2010. But Indiana’s growth outpaces our neighbors in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky. The Midwest is growing at only 0.3 percent.

Most growth in Indiana has been in the center of the state, with four of the five fastest-growing counties surrounding Indianapolis. Generally, those suburbs outside metro areas have experienced the most gains while rural counties have experienced the most losses.

In our area, the populations of St. Joseph and Elkhart counties have increased again; both are among the faster growing counties outside the center of the state. In 58 of Indiana’s 92 counties, the population shrank or stayed flat. In St. Joseph County, we’re bucking a trend that included decades of population stagnation.

Population growth is at the center of the Regional Cities mission. Experts had predicted slow to no growth for our area, but Regional Cities projects are intended to help buck that trend. We’re off to a good start, but it’s a little early to celebrate our success.

A closer look at South Bend estimates shows growth for the fourth straight year, reversing a trend of population decline that lasted several decades. In all, population has grown by only 719, with the trend being what should excite us most, even more than the number.

Population growth will be critical in the years to come to help fill new housing inventory currently under construction. Though single family residential growth has remained slow, in the next few years several hundred residential units are set to come to downtown South Bend and Mishawaka as well as on Mishawaka’s north side.

The people of our region play an important role in continuing this recent growth trend. Reach out to those friends and family who have left the area and tell them about all that has changed since they left. Or reach out to those former classmates or associates who have yet to experience our area and invite them for a visit.

While they’re here, be our chief salesperson.

We must build upon our moderate growth, complete key projects that will improve the quality of place, and attract young people to our region. Our future depends on it.

First Published in the South Bend Tribune on May 25, 2016

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

It's Time for New Time System for St. Joseph County

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)
Jeff Rea

Businesses look regularly to control costs, eliminate waste, increase efficiency and reduce the probability of errors. Those efforts help improve the bottom line and can be the difference between success and failure.

Rising costs and the full implementation of property tax caps at the end of 2019 should have local government thinking along similar lines. The Indiana General Assembly gave St. Joseph County and Lake County a decade longer than other Indiana counties to prepare for the full implementation of property tax caps. We’re nearing the end of that time frame.

John F. Kennedy once said “the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining.” The storm clouds (property tax caps) are forming on the horizon, and the time to fix that “roof” is now. But fixing the roof isn’t easy especially within the current structure of local government. Calls for reform and modernization have long been ignored.

In the news last week was a story that helps shine the light on that need for reform. St. Joseph County and the city of South Bend plan to implement a new automated employee time keeping system. Officials believe the new system will eliminate errors, improve efficiency and ultimately save money. The private sector has been using similar practices for more than a decade.

But approval of the new system was not without controversy. The three county commissioners, who are essentially the CEOs of the county, couldn’t all agree. And a number of other elected county department heads have yet to buy in to utilization of the new system that experts estimate could save the county $1.8 million annually.

In the end, two commissioners elected to move the county forward on that new system despite a third commissioner’s opposition. Moving forward was the right decision.

Only in county government do you have three CEOs. No private business or nonprofit organization has three CEOs. They recognize if more than one person is in charge, nobody is in charge. Even city government has realized the need for one single chief executive, the mayor.

Calls to move to a chief executive at the county level, i.e. a “mayor” of the county have long been resisted in counties across Indiana. Critics fear too much power would be consolidated into one position, though it works at the city level with a mayor.

Common-sense business decisions like the implementation of a new time system illustrate why one chief executive ought to be in place to make and be held accountable for important business decisions. But the time system debate doesn’t end there.

While many county departments see the benefit of moving from a system where employees write their hours on paper at the end of each pay period and people in each department manually verify those time sheets, not all have bought in.

The antiquated system of county government has elected officials, not the commissioners, still in charge of individual “silos” — departments — and in a position to resist changes such as the time system.

To date, only about half of the county’s roughly 1,200 employees would use the new system. For example, the county clerk has said she doesn’t plan to use the new system for her 61 employees; the old system works just fine.

In a modernized county government, a chief executive would be in a position to make decisions like this for each department and all employees of the county, and in the end would be held accountable for the decision. It’s time to revisit recommendations from the 2007 Kernan-Shepard Report before those storm clouds roll in.

Monday, March 28, 2016

SBCSC Superintendent Search Important to All of Us

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Monday, March 28, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
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There’s a help wanted sign hanging outside the South Bend Community School Corp. offices. The school board has embarked on a search for the next superintendent of schools. Carole Schmidt will retire at the end of this school year.

This might be the most important and complicated CEO search happening in this community this year. In the end, a new leader is expected to begin serving around July 1 and will be ready to tackle the challenges of the 2016-2017 school year.

Since Schmidt announced her retirement, a search firm has been hired, the school board has contemplated what it desires in a new school leader, 113 personal interviews and focus groups have been conducted and 831 people have weighed in via an online survey to gauge community input. You can find more detail on the leadership profile created from that input at the school corporation website.

Expectations are high, with a wide range of wishes it would seem only a superhero could fill. Truth is, some people will be thrilled with the eventual pick, some won’t like it, and some won’t care. But we all should care. Schools play a critical role in the growth and development of our community, and a strong leader is needed to build upon the momentum already built by Schmidt and others.

But let’s think about role for a second. Some 18,669 students are enrolled in South Bend schools, making it the fourth largest district in the state. There are 34 schools that house those students, 1,214 teachers who provide classroom instruction, part of a staff of close to 2,000 total employees.

The corporation is the fourth-largest employer in our area. Annually, its budget is close to $215 million. In addition to the classroom, it also has the largest transportation and food service program in our region. And there are great expectations from more than 100,000 “shareholders” (the people who live in the district).

Superintendents are called upon to make significant decisions daily. It’s a job that’s hard to escape, basically keeping them on call around the clock, seven days a week. The school day begins early in the morning and often stretches well into the evening hours with activities. Students, parents, teachers and staff all expect to see that superintendent supporting key corporation activities, whenever they may occur.

On top of that, property tax caps have placed additional stresses on school budgets, and money that once went to public schools is now diverted to charter and private schools. The full implementation of tax caps in St. Joseph County in 2020 will place additional challenges on the budget over the next four years.

Because of the complexity and enormity of the job, the pool of candidates could be shallow. But despite its challenges, I believe the South Bend superintendent position is an attractive one and I’m confident the corporation will attract top candidates.

Ultimately, the decision rests with the seven members of the South Bend school board. I have confidence in the school board selecting a charismatic and dynamic leader who exemplifies many of the qualities outlined by parents, educators, staff and community leaders.

Most importantly, as a community we must be ready to rally around that new superintendent and give him or her the support needed to be successful in our community. The work ahead is great, but our expectations must be reasonable.

The time frame is short and we can’t waste our time or energy second-guessing the decision. In that scenario the real losers are our children.

Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Attracting Talent Shouldn't Limit Opportunities

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)

Business leaders across the country will tell you that their top challenge is attracting and retaining talent. Top employees are critical to company growth and can be the difference between a company succeeding or failing. But companies are having a harder time these days keeping those top employees.

Gone are the days of employees working at one company their entire career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker today stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years. But employers say the expected tenure of the work force’s youngest employees is only about half of that.

Think about our own marketplace. Our history is dotted with stories of people who worked 30, 40 or even 50 years for local mainstay employers like Studebaker, Bendix, Uniroyal or Dodge. Few of those opportunities exist today.

In the old days, economic stability, health care plans, and pension plans were big factors in an employee staying at the same place for a long period of time. Couple that with limited opportunities and you have a recipe for employee longevity.

But employees have a lot more options available to them today. A broad mix of employment opportunities gives employees the chance to carefully assess those opportunities that provide them the flexibility, pay, benefits, and work conditions they desire.

Technology has made it easier to work for anyone from virtually anywhere in the world.

Employees have a basic desire for better opportunities for themselves. Higher pay and better benefits make it easier to take care of those basic challenges like paying a mortgage, buying a car, sending a kid to college or taking a dream vacation. But employees also desire a workplace where they feel valued.

Out of necessity, employers have become more flexible and have had to find creative ways to keep those top producers or to lure new talent. That has been much easier to do in the private sector than in other sectors. The private sector traditionally pays better and is able to offer better flexibility and benefits.

Flexible hours, work from home options and new office environments are among the things that can separate one employer from another. Though not all employers are able to offer them, business leaders are quickly looking at those factors that make them a preferred employer.

This is especially a challenge for the public sector, which traditionally has been less flexible in the workplace and now is finding it harder than ever to retain top talent. Though some employees are attracted to the opportunity to make a difference within a community, fewer will make the commitment for a whole career than their predecessors did.

Locally, a number of public sector employees have come under fire in recent months for moving to a new opportunity in the private sector. Some have suggested it was improper and soon the South Bend City Council may even consider trying to limit city employee opportunities in the private sector.

We live in a relatively small community, where many companies do business with the city and depending on your field, your opportunities can be limited. The private sector also recognizes that there are many talented people in the public sector who could thrive in a new opportunity. There are countless checks and balances to protect the interests of the public sector.

If the public sector wants to win the race for top talent, it must figure out how to pay workers a competitive wage and offer the type of workplace and flexibility employees are seeking.

Source: South Bend Tribune


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Stand for Business

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)
Jeff Rea

I feel compelled to defend the interests of the business community. Businesses seem to be thrust into the middle of so many important conversations happening today at the local level, the state level and across the country. For example, presidential candidates can’t help but bring up business interests at every campaign stop, and the interests of business are at the center of some of the most contentious debates in the Statehouse.

Daily, we celebrate the success of businesses starting, adding a location, growing, hiring more people or doing other good things for the community. At the same time, we often condemn businesses that haven’t been successful, have closed, downsized or decided to move elsewhere. Recently, critics also have been targeting those that make a profit.

Generally, business owners are the people who live next door to you, pass you on the street or sit next to you at church on Sunday. They are ordinary people, trying to make a living, hoping that they have a product or service that customers will ultimately buy.

Business owners are people who have taken great risk to launch their venture. Many have come up with a new idea or a better way to do something. Others have an idea for an improved product. Some have identified a need in a particular geographic area that is missing. Business leaders see an opportunity then figure out how best to seize that opportunity.

Many business owners have tapped their life savings, leaned on their friends and family, mortgaged their home, dipped into their retirement, or robbed the kids' college fund just to get started. Some will experience great success, and enjoy the fruits of their labors and the rewards that go with that success. But about half will lose everything trying to make a go of it.

History is filled with business leaders who failed at first, like Akio Morita (Sony), Bill Gates, Colonel Sanders, Frank Woolworth, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Walt Disney. All found success after initial failures.

Businesses do want to make money, and don’t and shouldn’t have to apologize for that goal. If they make money, they stay open, they grow, they expand, they hire more people and they invest more in the community. If they don’t make money, the opposite happens.

To make money, they rely on customers. If customers aren’t buying their goods and services, they aren’t making money. There is great competition for customers, no matter what industry you are in. People have a lot of choices related to where, when and how they buy goods and services. Businesses will do whatever they can to attract and retain customers; they know consumers have a lot of choices.

To make money, they also rely on employees. There is fierce competition for employees, who have a lot of choices these days about where to go and who to work for. Businesses know that good employees make all of the difference, and every effort needs to be made to attract and retain top talent.

In the end, my hope is that people will remember the important partner that our businesses are in the growth and the development of our communities. Businesses are critical to growth and development of our local economy. We can’t vilify them; instead we must find ways to support them and champion them, and create a climate where they can grow.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Do We Expect Too Much from Elected Officials?

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, February 3, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)
Jeff Rea

Our expectations of our elected and appointed leaders are great, and they should be. At the same time, I think those expectations can be unrealistic.

Do more with less. Fix that deficit but don’t cut those important things. Adjust to rising costs, but make sure it doesn’t cost more. Educate our kids. Fix our roads. Keep my neighborhood safe. Provide quality recreational opportunities at little to no cost. Make sure you’re open at hours that are convenient.

We see those expectations playing out in the daily news as the community wrestles with change. The sale of the Elbel Golf Course is a good example. The city has looked to sell the course that is outside the city and has been a drain on the city budget. Opposition has gathered to stop that action and opposes any sale or lease, though no plan includes revenue to fund any different path.

We’ve seen it play out in many other examples, ranging from bus routes to library hours, from after-school programs to vote centers, from police protection to 911 service. We demand great things from our government and from our schools. It costs money to deliver those things citizens demand.

Our area is embarking on some challenging times. We’re now less than four years away from the full implementation of property tax caps in our area. Already, we’ve seen the belt tightening as taxing entities prepare for significant revenue losses. That belt tightening has led to some efficiency, but a lot of resistance to changes that leaders have suggested as necessary.

The rest of the state is ahead of us. Property tax caps were implemented in 2008, and made part of the state Constitution in 2010. Hoosiers approved the caps that limit property tax bills to 1 percent of the assessed value of homes, 2 percent for farms and rental properties and 3 percent for businesses. St. Joseph and Lake counties were given an extra 10 years to implement the caps.

More than 70 percent of the people voted to place those caps in the constitution, an overwhelming mandate from the public for lower costs and more efficiency from our governments. Estimates at the time were for more than $500 million in annual savings to taxpayers.

The loss of tax revenue has forced city and county governments and schools to consider consolidation options. In many areas, government units have eliminated some services. Local governments are also looking at revenue-enhancing tools such as other taxes and higher charges and fees where possible.

We see similar dialogue at the national level, where we demand lower taxes and a reduction in the budget but don’t want any changes to things like national defense, Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare, or other important programs. We see this at the post office, where despite losses well into the billions, we demand services at the same level we see today.

So how do we fix it? It’s essential we have quality leaders willing to make the hard decisions. Our businesses make those hard decisions each day.

This is an important year for us to select those leaders, with elections that impact you at every level, ranging from president all the way to school board. It’s critical your voice is heard by way of your vote.

Then we have to trust and support those leaders to lead. Yes, we have a responsibility to hold them accountable, but let’s make sure our expectations are realistic. And if we disagree, we have to come with a real plan. Second guessing isn’t a strategy.

Source: South Bend Tribune

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

JEFF'S TAKE: Place Zoo Tax Proposal on Pause

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, January 20, 2016 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)

The Potawatomi Zoo is an important local attraction. For generations, families from our area have visited Indiana’s oldest zoo to see the more than 400 animals that call it home. Last year, more than 220,000 people came to visit.

Earlier this month, the zoo announced it was seeking approval from the Indiana General Assembly to implement a countywide food and beverage tax, to be collected from transactions at bars and restaurants or from a caterer, anywhere in St. Joseph County.

The zoo indicates the tax is necessary to support its 20-year, $37 million master plan. It believes the new tax could generate about $1 million annually.

If the General Assembly approves, it will be up to the local city councils in South Bend and Mishawaka, as well as the County Council. Two of the three bodies would have to approve for the tax to be implemented.

Currently, some 27 communities in Indiana have a food and beverage tax as a tool to help enhance the quality of place within the community. We don’t believe the tool is a bad one, if used the right way. We believe the proposal by the zoo is not the right way to go, and the pause button should be hit on its proposal. We’ll ask the General Assembly and our local councils to oppose the proposal.

We are blessed with many wonderful attractions here in our area. Think about places like Four Winds Field, the Morris Performing Arts Center, the Studebaker Museum, the History Museum, parks systems, and many other fine places that enhance the local quality of life. All face challenges like the zoo: How do they fund the ongoing maintenance and operations, deal with aging facilities, and fund necessary improvements that will help keep them competitive.

Imagine each of them, and others, lining up to make a similar request if the zoo is successful. The General Assembly and our local councils are then put in the difficult position of deciding if and when a tax is warranted for one attraction or another. All of this in a county that has historically been one of the most taxed in the state.

We believe a different approach is necessary to help meet the needs of St. Joseph County. Given the broad community needs, the business community believes a more collaborative approach is necessary. Like we suggested to the zoo in 2015, we believe any such consideration of a new tax needs to include an inclusive process involving many attractions, each of the communities in our county, and representatives of the food and beverage industry.

That process must first identify parameters by which those funds generated should be spent. It should also include guidelines ranging from who should be eligible to apply for funds to who ultimately would review applications for funds and how funds might be disbursed.

Other communities have a capital improvement board that ultimately meets to review applications. This creates a little competition among projects, but in the end, the best project gets selected. A similar model could work here.

Perhaps locally a body like the Hotel-Motel Tax Board could perform a similar function. It currently is made up of representatives from each of the communities as well as the industry.

Once an inclusive and collaborative plan has been prepared, then we take some time to help educate the public, the General Assembly, and local elected officials on the proposal, what it entails, and how it might benefit the community. The current proposal includes no such plan, and should be put on hold.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Look Back at 2015 in St. Joseph County

Posted by: Jeff Rea, SJC Chamber President and CEO on Thursday, January 7, 2016 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

Major development and redevelopment in our downtown areas. A growing logistics hub on South Bend’s northwest side. A new gateway into Mishawaka’s north side and an expansion of the busy Grape Road/N. Main Street commercial area. A project 30 years in the making in New Carlisle. Unprecedented growth and construction on Notre Dame’s campus. The rebirth of the former Studebaker area. Unprecedented regional collaboration. What a year 2015 was!

Overall, construction activity is up more than 66%. Through November, some 456 commercial building permits have been issued in St. Joseph County with estimated commercial construction costs of over $480 million. Our County is seeing growth in all sectors.

The construction numbers aren’t the only telling facts. The number of people employed in our area is now above pre-recession employment levels at close to 125,000 employed; the unemployment rate are down close to 4%, its lowest in years; per capita personal income is up for the fifth time in the past six years; and for the first time in decades estimates have our population growing. 

The history books could look back at 2015 as a major watershed moment for economic development in our region. The Michiana Partnership has guided a well-coordinated regional economic development effort that has people across Indiana and around the Country thinking different about our area. That effort has paid off with the announcement of the State of Indiana infusing some $42 million into our regional cities effort that will catalyze some $700 million in new investment that will help grow population across our area.

Downtowns are often one of the most telling signs of the health of a community. Both South Bend and Mishawaka scored well on their check-up. In South Bend, construction is underway at the former Hoffman and LaSalle Hotel buildings, the JMS Building, the Chase Tower, and on Hill/Colfax. Downtown Mishawaka, the River Rock Project residential/commercial project and the completion of the Central Park Overhaul continue the downtown renaissance.

Our location right in the middle of the crossroads of America mean a growing logistics hub on South Bend’s northwest side. New construction in 2015 by Fed Ex, Hubbel-Raco, Chase Plastics and a new 200,000 spec building have kept contractors busy. Recently Pepsi announced plans to join the area and 2016. 

On the manufacturing side, a couple of highlights. Mercedes-Benz and AM General launched production of the R-Class at the Mishawaka Plant. General Sheet Metal broke ground on their new 22.7 million plant in the Blackthorn area. MTI announced plans for a South Bend expansion.

The opening of Beacon Parkway means a new gateway into Mishawaka’s north side. Beacon Health and Bayer have announced plans for major construction that is now underway. Also on that north side, Great Lakes Capital broke ground on a new $100 million mixed use project. The project includes multi-family residential, restaurants, offices and medical in the future.

On campus, construction is well underway on the $400 million Campus Crossroads Project that is changing the look of Notre Dame Stadium. The University also has been busy with the construction of McCourtney Hall, Jenkins and Nanovic Halls, the renovation of the Hesburgh Library, the construction of undergraduate residence halls, and the construction of the new boathouse.

The University also teamed up with partners in the aerospace industry for the construction of the new Notre Dame Turbomachinery Laboratory at Ignition Park. Construction is nearing completion and will be ready for occupancy in 2016.

On the west side of the County, construction finally began on the St. Joseph Energy Center, a new $500 million natural gas power plant. Developers have been talking about a plant in the New Carlisle area since the late 1970’s. Toyota Group and Ares Private Equity Group are partnering to build the new plant.

Job growth continues in the medical sectors and major construction projects are underway at Memorial Hospital in South Bend and with a new $38 million VA Clinic in Mishawaka.

Many other great projects moved forward in 2015, but much work remains to be done. We head into 2016 with great momentum. For more information I would encourage you visit for a closer look at these and other projects.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

JEFF'S TAKE: What's In an Area's Name?

Posted by: Jeff Rea, SJC Chamber, President and CEO on Wednesday, December 16, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

People in our region have strong feelings about the places they call home. And they have strong allegiances to their neighborhood, their school, and the city, town or county where they reside.

I think it’s a good thing for people to be tireless champions for their community. If everyone shared energy and passion for the places they live, this community would be a better place. If only we could convince everybody to be tireless champions for our region as well.

Recently, some of the media has been diving a little deeper into the Michiana area, the origins of the Michiana name, and whether the name is appropriate or whether we should be called something different.

What does the business community think? Take the organization I work for. Our primary focus is on the communities within St. Joseph County, which include South Bend, Mishawaka, Osceola, New Carlisle, Lakeville, Walkerton, North Liberty, Roseland, Indian Village and Granger.

But we also recognize that the customers who support our businesses in St. Joseph County don’t all live in St. Joseph County, nor do all of their employees come from our county. So we also support what happens in Elkhart, Goshen, Shipshewana, Nappanee, Middlebury, Wakarusa, Bristol, Plymouth, Culver, Bremen, Argos, LaPaz and Bourbon.

In addition, because they also are part of our region, what happens in Niles, Buchanan, St.Joseph, Benton Harbor, New Buffalo, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg, Vandalia, Marcellus, Berrien Springs, Bridgman, Stevensville, Coloma, Lakeside, Grand Beach, Union Pier, Watervliet and Baroda also matters.

Those 40-plus communities fit together and form the pieces of the puzzle that are our regional economy. No two communities are alike, each offering a unique history and distinctive attributes. We celebrate that. The truth is our businesses and attractions rely on customers and employees who come from every corner of those 40-plus communities, and the five primary counties in our region (Berrien and Cass in Michigan; St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall in Indiana). More than 720,000 people live in those five counties.

Throughout the year, our staff is scattered across the country connecting with site selectors, real estate professionals, company decision makers, and visitors championing the advantages of visiting or doing business here in our region. Indiana has one of the top business climates in the country so those professionals have taken note of the opportunities here in the Hoosier state. Our job is to then help them understand the advantages of being here in our region.

One of the things our customers from outside the area recognize is the name South Bend because of its connection with the University of Notre Dame and because of the South Bend International Airport. Those at least help differentiate us from the 5,000 other communities across the United States that also are competing for the same jobs, capital investment and visitors. Because our customers recognize it, we’ve tried to use it to our advantage.

“Michiana” has worked well internally when describing our area and has given residents of the region a common name to rally around. Outside, our customers have had a harder time identifying with Michiana, because it’s not a real place and can’t be found on a map. Perhaps we have different messages for our internal and our external audiences?

Across the country, our competitors aren’t arguing internally about what the local/regional effort should be called, and instead have focused their time and energy on getting people there. My hope is that we can take a similar approach here.

Source: South Bend Tribune

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How Our Talent Competes Globally

Posted by: Jeff Rea
President and CEO
St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 at 12:00:00 am
 Comments (0)

Over the years I’ve been curious as to how people found their way to the South Bend Region. Most came from other places in search of an employment opportunity. Companies such as Studebaker, Uniroyal, Oliver and Dodge sought skilled labor to man their factories and promised a better quality of life for those who were interested.

I’ve heard many a story of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and boarding a train that would bring them west to a new opportunity and a new life. We were historically a hotbed for talent attraction. A robust economy attracted immigrants from virtually every corner of the globe. Those immigrants ultimately planted roots here and many stayed and found regular and gainful employment for decades to follow. Their families followed suit.

But now, times have changed. Advances in technology mean fewer people are working in many of our legacy industries. People have left our area seeking employment elsewhere. Companies are now able to do business from anywhere in the world. People have become more mobile. The competition for top talent is stiffer than it’s ever been and to grow our local economy, winning that battle will be critical.

Indiana leaders have recognized the need to develop, attract and retain that top talent and that is an important element of the Indiana Regional Cities Program. Bold, creative and transformational ideas are essential to attract that next generation of talent. Our communities need to stand out and have some “wow” factor and they need to offer the types of amenities that attract the next generation of worker.

Our area has worked for more than a year on a plan that includes key projects in St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties and is aimed to help attract that talent. Our peers in six other parts of Indiana have taken similar action. Our plan has been well received by business leaders across the state and by mid-December, we’ll know whether state funding will be available to help jump-start key area projects.

An important part of our regional strategy relates to the more than 40,000 students enrolled in undergraduate programs at our local colleges and universities in our region. Retaining some of those students in our region is critical to our future economic growth.

Experts are telling us that quality of life and availability of talent will be the two most critical drivers for economic success. Sound a little familiar? My guess is that if we were to do like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” and hop in Doc Brown’s DeLorean to travel back in time, the Studebaker brothers might tell us a similar tale. For a while, companies like Studebaker and communities like the South Bend region won the battle for talent and were able to grow into one of the top automakers in the world.

But in recent years, we’ve lost more top young people than we’ve won. Young people instead have been attracted to bigger cities, which offer a wider variety of services, more entertainment options, more recreational opportunities, more opportunities for social interaction, and conveniences not often offered in smaller areas. And those young people need jobs.

Leaders in our area understand this and have worked to create and enhance spaces that are cool and unique. Young people are beginning to experience more of this and have been instrumental in helping create some of those spaces. Now we must unleash those young ambassadors to sell the merits of our region to their friends, classmates and social networks.

The work is just beginning. Together, our region can once again be a hotbed for talent attraction.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Now the Real Work Begins

Posted by: Jeff Rea, SJC Chamber President and CEO on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

Dear General Election Winners:

We want to congratulate you on your victory in last week’s municipal elections. Your hard work has paid off and the voters of your area have trusted you to best represent their interests and the interests of the community as a whole. It’s a pretty awesome responsibility, but we know you’re up to the task.

So now the real work begins. For new officials, you’ll be inundated with information about the jurisdiction you are representing. You’ll quickly digest that information in preparation for those tough decisions that lie ahead. For you veterans, your victory is affirmation of your previous work and you now are prepared to share your important insight with the “newbies.” Together, you’ll come together, regardless of your political persuasion, to serve the collective interests of the community.

It is our hope that your position will cause you to not only champion your own jurisdiction, but the region as a whole. We hope you recognize that your competition doesn’t come from our neighbors here in the region, but from regions elsewhere in Indiana, throughout the Midwest, across the Country and around the world.

Individually, it’s hard to tell our communities apart as they tend to look like thousands of other communities from all over the country.

Together, the communities in our area fit together like a puzzle, forming a picture of a growing region with a lot to offer potential investors and residents. Please help assemble your important puzzle piece.

We hope you remember the important impression you make about your community. People will make judgments about your jurisdiction based upon your actions and how you conduct your business. We understand you’ll engage in spirited debate and at times, we know you will vigorously disagree with others. In the end though, it’s important that your differences not harden into anger and that you remember those on the other side also have a valuable insight.

Some complicated days are ahead. There is great demand for the services your jurisdiction provides. The expectation exists for high quality and affordable services accompanied by great customer service. Shrinking revenues and swelling costs will challenge your ability to meet those demands. In fact, tough decisions await as to which of those services you will continue to be able to provide and which will fall victim to a budget cut.

The end of this coming term will mean the full implementation of property tax caps, taking millions of additional property tax dollars away from your annual budgets. Communities across the State have already faced a similar challenge and adjusted, with only Lake County and St. Joseph County delayed. The General Assembly gave those two counties ten additional years to brace for the impact, so it’s unrealistic to think any additional extensions will be possible.

New revenue sources won’t be popular. The general consensus is that we pay a lot in taxes already, and the property tax cap will only bring us level with every other community in Indiana. Some different thinking will be required. A close look at our local government system that was largely crafted in the 1800’s and remains relatively unchanged will be essential. Though minor cuts have occurred, they’ve only scratched the surface. Your leadership will be key here.

The business community looks forward to being your partner and stands ready to work closely with you in growing our community. Call upon us if we can be of assistance. Again, congratulations on your victory!

The Business Community

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Jeff's Take: A Look Back at History

Posted by: Jeff Rea, Chamber President and CEO on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (1)

The Chamber is in the process of moving offices. After 30 years at the Commerce Center on the East Race in South Bend, we’re moving across the river into another important, historical downtown building, the American Trust Place Building.

We’ll occupy our new space beginning Aug. 3.

Moving can be a chore. Imagine 30-plus years of accumulation all in one spot. We’ve collected a lot of stuff during that time. Add that to the valuables we had accumulated in our 70-plus years before in other locations and that adds up to more than 100 years of treasures.

Like many of us do in our homes and businesses, we hung on to things just in case we might need it again someday. We also had a great deal of historical information that helps paint the picture of what our communities looked like throughout the years. I’ve had a fun time looking back and a better understanding of some of the key issues our business and community leaders dealt with during their day. Some of the issues may surprise you.

Going back at least 75 years, business leaders seemed to have had great concern about finding quality workers to fill positions within their companies. It seemed that the workplace was changing with the advent of new technology and employers wondered whether the workers of the day had the skills necessary to help them compete. Sound familiar at all?

Transportation was a top priority. Leaders recognized the importance of a strong transportation network to help move goods, services and people, and they sought ways to fund necessary enhancements to the system. Imagine, those leaders being concerned about not enough resources to fix existing roads or build new ones. Another familiar theme.

The tax and regulatory climate was a key concern. There was great concern with our ability to compete with other markets both in and out of the state. At the same time, there was concern about having the necessary resources to meet the increasing demand for public services.

Communities were growing, which was putting great demand on our infrastructure as communities prepared for new growth. I think I’ve heard that one before.

Through the years, the issues of the day popped in and out of files. Everything from time zones to toll roads to taxes.

The late Harry Chapin penned a great song, “All My Life’s a Circle.” Harry might have been right. The issues of yesterday seem very similar to the issues today. Only the businesses and individuals have changed. And each has chosen to approach the issues of the day from a little bit different angle.

But are we making any progress? If we are moving again 30 years from now and reminiscing through our new accumulation of stuff, will our look back be eerily similar? Or will this be the era that changed it all. Will we have redefined our area? Will we have tackled some catalytic issues that helped propel our communities? Will we have put aside political and personal differences for the betterment of our region?

The communities that have thrived have done so because they had bold leaders in the public and private sectors. They weren’t afraid to try new things and tackle difficult or even controversial issues. And they found ways to inspire others to get on board. It’s up to each of us to decide how our future goes; we all play a role. We have an opportunity today to help right what the history books say about this era.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Our Community's Health

Posted by: Jeff Rea, Chamber President and CEO on Monday, May 18, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

Seven years ago I made the personal decision that I wanted to be healthier. Though I didn’t necessarily feel unhealthy, I, like many, had added a few pounds every year after college to the point where a routine health screening at work had Nurse Connie put me in the “obese” category.

I didn’t like those words, and made a conscious decision to not let my first heart attack be the thing that convinced me I need to be healthy. But I didn’t want to be on a “diet.” Instead, I changed my lifestyle, ate better and exercised. I didn’t try to lose it all at once, and I began a two year journey where I eventually lost about eighty pounds.

Though not excited to be the poster child for the fat guy that got skinny, my journey was very public and gave me many opportunities to share my experiences and the highlights and lowlights along the way. For me, my progress meant I felt better, I had more energy, I was more productive, I handled stress better, I even slept better. The community cheered me on and encouraged me along the way.

Interesting to think how I encountered Nurse Connie in the first place. At the time, like many CEOs, I was concerned about rising health costs in the company and what that was doing to the bottom line. Our health costs had skyrocketed and like many organizations, almost every new dollar was being eaten up by those increasing costs. That left little at the end of the day for other things like employee raises, new equipment or other key projects.

Truth was the only way to really help combat this issue long-term was to have a healthier workforce. So I thought why not do simple assessments for employees where they could better understand their current condition and maybe chart a new course for their own personal health and for that of their family. I had to lead by example and anxiously signed up for my assessment. I’m glad did, it’s what I needed to get me started.

Employee health costs have risen faster than virtually every other cost category for businesses. Businesses small and large have studied and implemented plans to help combat those rising costs. Any while cost is an important factor, it’s not the only consideration for business. Healthier employees have been found to be more productive, are absent less, have less stress, have a better attitude in addition to having less expenditures.

Other benefits include having employees with more energy which helps employees stay more focused when they are on the job. Healthy employees tend to have a higher level of self-confidence in themselves and inspires confidence in others around them. Employees, who set fitness goals and stay motivated to exercise also tend to be more goal-oriented at work.

Indiana traditionally hasn’t fared well when comparing health statistics with other states, usually ranking in the bottom ten. Smoking and obesity are two of those categories where we score the worst and studies indicate a high prevalence of physical inactivity as being a major contributing factor to our poor rankings.

For Indiana and our area to grow as we desire, we all have to make a conscious decision to be healthier. The health of our communities is being evaluated by people considering Indiana as it says a lot about our state, who we are, and what is important to us. Let’s change what the rest of the Country thinks of us.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Takeaways from Triangle Visit

Posted by: Jeff Rea, President and CEO, SJC Chamber on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)

I had a chance last week to experience some great southern hospitality with a visit to the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. I joined other business and community leaders from our area with the mission of meeting with key leaders in the area known as The Triangle to learn some best practices that have contributed to their success.

The Raleigh Chamber and the Durham Chamber served as gracious hosts. Both have great passion for their areas and have been key drivers to the economic success experienced in the region. They work closely together, and both were eager to share some insight into how they have gotten to where they are today, some of the key decisions the community made along the way, the leadership required to inspire change and the lessons they have learned.

Some may argue that our area/region is nothing like Raleigh-Durham and hence not the right place to study. I agree there are many differences, but I found as many similarities as I did differences and some key takeaways that I hope help us here in our pursuits.

First, I found many individual communities that have worked hard to grow their own areas, while at the same time touting a shared vision for the region. I did not know where Raleigh started or Durham ended, or when I was in Chapel Hill, Cary, Zebulon or Fuquay Varina. I just knew I was in the Triangle area and when I talked to individuals, they all “owned” and touted the benefits and amenities of the region in addition to their own community.

Imagine if South Bend, Mishawaka, Elkhart, Goshen, Plymouth, Warsaw and each of the other smaller communities thought and worked in a similar fashion. As a region we have wonderful assets. Individually we are limited.

I found a great deal of trust between the leaders of the different communities. Leaders first were worried about landing projects in the Triangle area and then about where it landed in the region. For example, leaders in the region meet at least monthly to share business leads, talk about opportunities and develop strategies to move the region forward. I didn’t see any time wasted fighting among the different jurisdictions over the trivial matters that often hold our region back.

I saw a region that placed a high priority on creating an environment for entrepreneurs to succeed. That environment encourages people to take risks and has a supportive environment that includes everything from counseling to space to financial support. The emphasis on quality of place and the physical features of a community that are attractive to young entrepreneurial types also was a real advantage.

I saw universities like Duke, UNC and NC State play an important role in the development of the community — from the things the students do to volunteer and support the community, to their role as a large employer, to the major investments the universities make in the area, to the research happening on campus that is growing out into real business opportunities in the region.

The high concentration of college students in the area makes it an attractive talent pool for potential employers.The Raleigh-Durham area has some wonderful things going on in their two downtowns as well as at NC State’s Centennial Campus, at the Research Triangle Park, at the former American Tobacco Warehouse, the American Underground and at many other locations in the region.

But we, too, have many wonderful assets to build upon here in our region. It’s up to us now to do what that area did to ensure future success. We must work together on a vision for this region and we must all “own” and champion the great assets available here. Our future depends upon it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Best Time to Fix the Roof

Posted by: Jeff Rea, President and CEO, St. Joseph County Chamber on Friday, November 14, 2014 at 10:30:00 am Comments (1)

On January 11, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered his second State of the Union Address to Congress. Kennedy had taken office just one year prior, and now had the opportunity to address Congress and the country. The address is something that has become an annual review of what’s happening in the country and a look forward to what lies ahead.

Kennedy entered the presidency at a difficult time. The US had experienced a significant recession in the late 1950s that led to high unemployment rates and failing businesses. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev called the US economy a stumbling horse. Kennedy’s first year began in the valley of the recession but ended the year on the high road of recovery and growth. That recovery included new records in consumer spending, labor income, and industrial production.

In his address, President Kennedy discusses his plans to strengthen the economy in response to the recent recession and the threat of inflation, and the need for Congress to respond to certain national matters, including pollution, education, mass transit, urban housing, civil rights, public health, and welfare assistance programs. Though Kennedy thought it might be pleasant to bask in the warmth of the recovery the country had experienced, he asked Congress not to forget our past challenges and told them that “the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”

I think this can be a hard lesson to learn. All too often organizations wait until they are in the throes of crisis to change strategy. Record sales, new customers, new product lines, high employee satisfaction, a good reputation, all lead to a mindset of more business as usual. But business as usual will only keep a company on top for a short time. After a while, the storm clouds roll in.

We faced this challenge in my organization. The significance was hard for employees to embrace, especially coming from a youthful CEO like myself. Our organization was held in high esteem, often looked to as the model of efficiency, delivered great customer service and quality product, and was a model of good governance. We were good, trying to figure out how to become great. At the same time though we knew that the storms were brewing on the horizon and rough days could lie ahead. Wait? Or take President Kennedy’s advice and try to fix that roof while the sun was shining? We couldn’t wait.

We immediately sought changes that our competitors weren’t implementing, which made for a hard sell, especially to our employees. We had to make changes to our cost structure. Much of it was tied up in employee costs and benefits…many things our employees held sacred. In addition, more than one hundred other cost cutting measures and new efficiencies had to be implemented.

The result was a great deal of unrest and a feeling that a different CEO was needed. Gone were the days of comfortable, and upon us was a period of uncertainty and “significant storms.” Those storms included a shrinking revenue base, rising costs, and a slow growing customer base. The shareholders narrowly agreed to retain me as the CEO, and the changes that had been implemented started to take hold. In year one alone, over $3.8 million had been saved through cost cutting and efficiency measures.

As a result, the gap widened between our organization and our competitors. Many of them had failed to make the hard decisions that leadership often demands and had not taken proactive steps to prepare for the future. We were well positioned to reduce debt, improve services, and deal with the financial challenges of the day. And the best part? Our once skeptical employees now were seeing the benefits of the hard decisions we had made earlier, while the sun was shining.

What’s The Risk?

Change is hard, but necessary. And leadership involves making tough decisions, in good times and in bad. The decisions you make as a leader when things are going good are just as important as those decisions you’ll make when things are tough. To keep your company out front you can’t wait to lose your market share or have your competition gain ground. Stay one step ahead and remember the advice from President Kennedy, “the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”