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Regional Chamber marches onward

2-year-old coalition making mark, still has growing up to do

Being the biggest brings many advantages … but it also presents a few challenges.

That’s what some local CEOs realized in 2010 when they decided to form a regional coalition to lobby elected officials on business-related issues. Their goal was to remake the Fort Wayne Corporate Council into an organization that business leaders in Auburn, Bluffton, Columbia City and other surrounding cities would want to join and actively support. Fort Wayne’s concerns couldn’t be given more weight than the region’s interests.

Local leaders had to shift their focus from the big city to the bigger picture.

The result, the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, is now about halfway to fulfilling its founders’ vision. It boasts about 70 members and a 2013 budget of about $500,000.

Its first big win came this year when Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a “right-to-work” law that stops workplaces from requiring union membership as a condition for employment.

But significant work remains before the Regional Chamber is considered a mature organization.

Its executive director said it lacks the infrastructure of more seasoned groups, requiring leaders to establish new rules for almost every endeavor. Over time, the organization’s leaders will create the processes and procedures.

Another deficiency in the Regional Chamber deserves more scrutiny, its critics say. The group’s membership lacks diversity. Its board includes only one woman and no racial minorities.

As a result, said John Dortch, president of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Chamber can’t effectively advocate at the statehouse for the needs of women- and minority-owned businesses.

“They might think they can,” he said, “but they can’t.”

A major reboot

Keith Busse was a driving force behind the Regional Chamber’s creation.

The chairman and co-founder of Fort Wayne-based Steel Dynamics Inc. recalled the Corporate Council of 20 or 30 years ago. It was something of a “good old boys’ club” in those days, more interested in Scotch and cigars than results, Busse said.

“I didn’t think they had any real clout to move the needle” on policy issues, he said.

The Corporate Council evolved into a more effective organization over the years, but its leaders saw the potential for wielding more influence if they could legitimately say they represented the views of business executives throughout northeast Indiana.

But that required a commitment to be inclusive.

“If all we do is do Fort Wayne’s bidding, the other guys are going to get sick and tired of it and not join,” Busse said.

During 2010, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership was gaining traction. The nonprofit, formed in 2006, helped create and fund some of the local economic development organizations in the region. The partnership promoted the idea that the region’s counties have a common goal and could be collaborators instead of competitors.

The Regional Chamber benefited from the partnership’s work to form a strong regional identity. Matt Bell, its first executive director, was a former state representative from Noble County, which added to the organization’s regional credentials.

The Regional Chamber’s membership includes economic development officials from the region’s 10 counties and the Northeast Indiana Chamber Coalition, which includes chambers of commerce from cities and counties throughout the region.

Their participation helps ensure the Regional Chamber’s regional outlook actually reflects the region, officials said. Because their perspective is so valuable, they participate for free.

The Regional Chamber charges membership dues based on annual revenue of the northeast Indiana-based company or corporate division. Dues range from $2,500 to $15,000 annually.

The current member roster is about 80 percent Fort Wayne-based. Dues could be a barrier for smaller employers in the region.

Or some companies could have concerns about the Regional Chamber’s focus. It’s unclear why various businesses haven’t joined.

Keeping it straight

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership focuses on marketing, promoting the region as a great place for business investment and improving the region to make it more attractive for investment.

Its sister organization, the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, tries to make the region more attractive by lobbying for policies that make Indiana more business friendly. (The Chamber Coalition brings members together but relies on the Regional Chamber to lobby legislators on its behalf.)

The Regional Chamber’s specific positions on issues fall within three target areas: increasing worker training, creating a competitive business climate and erecting world-class infrastructure.

By waving the regional banner, the Regional Chamber can arrange meetings with the more than 20 state legislators and senators who represent specific sections of northeast Indiana.

It’s more likely a bill will be noticed at the Statehouse if a bloc of legislators backs it, Busse said.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, who represents District 16, has given the Regional Chamber his seal of approval.

“The fact that they have a daily presence at the General Assembly while we are in session, pushing a pro-growth agenda for our region, is of significant help to our area’s legislative delegation,” Long said in a written statement that appears in the Regional Chamber’s literature.

Chasing diversity

While the Regional Chamber is starting to make its mark, the organization still has maturing to do.

Bell, the first executive director, left after less than two years to lead Ivy Tech’s Corporate College – a statewide effort to address employers’ needs by offering company-specific courses.

John Gerni, former regional vice president of state relations for the American Council of Life Insurers, was hired as Bell’s successor.

Gerni, who joined the Regional Chamber about five months ago, previously represented Lincoln National Corp. on legislative and regulatory initiatives. But he’s still working through a learning curve.

One issue in the organization’s maturing process is diversity.

Bob Taylor, the Regional Chamber’s chairman, said it’s “a fair question” why the relatively young organization’s board isn’t more diverse.

The group’s leaders aspire to gender and racial diversity on the board, said Taylor, who is also president and CEO of Fort Wayne-based Do it Best Corp.

Gerni, one of the Regional Chamber’s three full-time employees, agreed.

“Absolutely we would welcome diversity on our board of directors,” Gerni said. “We’re an organization that wants to be as inclusive as possible.”

But the reality, they say, is that the population of northeast Indiana’s rural counties is overwhelmingly white.

Add to that the Regional Chamber’s requirement that board members must be the CEO or head the branch or division operating in northeast Indiana, and numerous women and minorities in middle management are excluded from participating.

“People expect leaders to lead, and that’s what this organization is all about,” Gerni said.

The current board is representative of the Regional Chamber’s membership “whether it’s right or whether it’s wrong,” he said.

Dortch, president of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce, believes the Regional Chamber could do more to be inclusive.

He recently attended his first meeting, after the Black Chamber paid $100 for a non-profit membership.

Dortch is also president and CEO of The Preston Joan Group, a human resources consulting firm. He said the Regional Chamber could change its own rules.

“I don’t know why it has to be a president or CEO” only that represents an employer, he said. Numerous minorities and women hold high-level executive jobs in the region, he said.

Taylor said Step 1 was creating regional diversity on the board, a task he believes has been accomplished.

Step 2 is looking at gender and racial diversity, he said. Jerrilee Mosier, Ivy Tech Community College’s chancellor, is the board’s only woman. The Regional Chamber board seat is designated for whoever is in the chancellor’s chair – regardless of gender or race, Mosier said.

Her role over the past two years has been to represent the views of educators rather than the views of women. Mosier has been asked – as have all board members – to help recruit new members.

“Like any organization,” she said, “we’re maturing and evolving.”

Member roster

The Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana represents business interests throughout the region, although about
80 percent of the members are in Fort Wayne. The membership roster:
•Abacus Early Learning Center
•Asher Agency
•Associated Builders and Contractors of Indiana
•Baden, Gage & Schroeder LLC
•BF Goodrich Tire Manufacturing
•Bradley Gough Diamonds
•Brigadoon Financial Inc.
•Brooks Construction
•Bose Public Affairs Group
•CB Richard Ellis/Sturges
•Crowe Horwath
•Deister Machine Co.
•DeKalb Memorial Hospital
•Design Collaborative
•Do it Best Corp.
•Faegre Baker Daniels LLP
•Farmers State Bank
•Five Star Distributing
•Fort Wayne Metals Research Products
•Fort Wayne Newspapers
•Frontier Communications
•Glenbrook Automotive Group
•Haller & Colvin
•Hanning & Bean Enterprises Inc.
•Heidtman Steel
•The Hylant Group
•Independent Alliance Banks
•Indiana Michigan Power
•Indiana Tech
•ITT Exelis
•Ivy Tech Community College of Northeast Indiana
•KPC Media Group
•Kelley Automotive
•Lake City Bank
•Lincoln National Corp.
•Lutheran Health Network
•Manchester University
•Medical Protective
•Metal Technologies
•Mike Thomas Associates
•The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership
•Northeastern REMC
•Paragon Steel Trading
•Parkview Health
•Parkview Ortho Hospital
•Pizza Hut of Fort Wayne
•PNC Financial Services Group
•Rea Magnet Wire
•Schenkel Shultz Architecture
•Star Bank
•Steel Dynamics Inc.
•Sweetwater Sound
•Tower Bank
•Trine University
•Upstate Alliance of Realtors
•University of Saint Francis
•Valbruna Slater Stainless Inc.
•Vera Bradley Inc.
•Weigand Construction
•Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana

At a glance

The Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana has published several state policy positions for the 2013 session. They include:
•Support for continued use of tax increment financing as an economic development tool
•Support for more specifically defined requirements for use of County Economic Development Income Tax (CEDIT) funds
•Support for extended tax abatement schedule and increased flexibility
•Support for lowering Indiana’s Financial Institution Tax to 6.5 percent from 8.5 percent
•Support for more efficient local and state government
•Support less regulation on business and the public
•Support elimination of the tax on business equipment
•Support creation of a tax on Internet sales

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