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The Journal Gazette
Ellen Cutter of IPFW’s Community Research Institute sees reasons for optimism in the area’s economy.

Building blocks of a stronger city

Forecaster likes direction of area’s economy

The Journal Gazette

“No data are perfect,” says Ellen Cutter, director of IPFW’s Community Research Institute. But the numbers Cutter gathers and analyzes offer some insights and answers for those who want to know how Fort Wayne is doing in the battle to improve economically.

Cutter, 32, moved to Fort Wayne in 2011 and stepped into longtime planning guru John Stafford’s job this summer after he downshifted into a consulting role. Educated at Loyola University of Chicago and Georgia Tech, Cutter is a certified urban planner who previously worked for an Atlanta-based development firm, Market Street Services.

Here are some edited highlights of Cutter’s recent visit with The Journal Gazette editorial board.

Q. Do you think things are getting better? Or getting better but not as “better” as they should be getting?

A. I think that there’s reason for optimism if you look at the unemployment rates that have gone down. More people have entered the labor force. We are experiencing steady job growth.

But if you take a look at the sectors where we’ve added jobs, they’re lower-wage sectors. Wages obviously significantly lag national wages; lag the state average, as well. And that ties into the whole per-capita-income focus.

So the opportunities that are being created aren’t those high-value opportunities.

If you just compare 2012 to 2013, (this is) where we’ve added the most jobs: government, which includes a lot of teacher positions, accommodation and food services, retail trade. Certainly there are some high-value opportunities in retail trade, if you work as a store manager, but … you would assume that most of those jobs are lower-wage jobs.

One of the categories that helps raise wages hasn’t shown much change. Professional scientific and technical services has only shown a 1 percent increase over the last decade, Cutter said. “Those are great jobs,” she said. “(Research and development) is included there, engineering, accounting, advertising – kind of a catch-all for white-collar jobs you can get out of college with a liberal arts or business degree.”

Cutter noted that in the category of “administrative and support and waste management,” there’s been a 22 percent jump in jobs since 2003. But about 5,000 of the 11,822 jobs are in temporary services.

For the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, CRI has produced a “dashboard,”, that shows how this area is doing on key development issues compared to 14 other areas with similar demographics. The other cities are classified as “stars,” areas such as Davenport, Iowa, and Peoria, Ill., that have until now outperformed Fort Wayne; and “peers,” cities such as Kalamazoo, Evansville and South Bend that have had economic struggles similar to ours.

The latest rankings show the Fort Wayne area growing more rapidly than its peers in such categories as employment, per capita income and productivity, but still losing ground in the battle to keep young adults from moving away after school.

Q. Fort Wayne is doing better than several Indiana cities. What is the difference?

A. Economic diversification. Manufacturing has done relatively well. … It has been the top job creator since the recession because we had so much to gain back. Health care has added 4,500 new jobs (since 2003). I suspect that it’s the balance of the two.

Q. What do you think are the most important steps for this area to take to move forward?

Cutter referred to the chart above, which shows Fort Wayne and other parts of the state struggle with what some call the “brain drain.”

A. There are three ways a population can grow or decline. International migration, domestic migration and natural change – births and deaths.

Look at the red bars – domestic migration. Indiana metro areas have a very hard time with domestic migration. Outside of Indianapolis, outside of Columbus – there are a lot of jobs there – many metro areas are losing folks.

So I think that the most important initiatives are twofold. 1. Quality job options. And 2. Quality of life enhancement. Things that provide an attractive quality of life for lots of different types of people.

If you want to get people to move here, or keep people here, there’s got to be economic opportunity, and there’s got to be opportunity for them to build a great personal life as well.

Q. What do you think are the biggest measurements of quality of life that people look at?

Downtown is the showpiece of any community, really, and I think there are a lot of positive things going on. … The riverfront study and projects coming out of that could be a huge catalyst. The rivers are kind of hidden.

The Ash (Brokerage) project – that’s really great. Residential development within the central business district needs to be expanded outward: I think the in-town neighborhoods need a lot of support.

From an economic development perspective, if you’re someone who’s thinking about locating a business here, or someone who’s thinking about moving here, there are some rough areas.

I think Fort Wayne has a great airport. You have to make it easy for business travelers.

It’s a great community if you want to get involved – doors are open. That’s very hard to quantify but very important.

There are really strong anchor institutions. We’ve got great hospitals, great universities, Science Central, the zoo, the Botanical Gardens, the Philharmonic.

It’s the next level of some of the retail options – some of those things that still haven’t trickled down. But you see things trending in a way that it’s not hard to imagine that that would happen next.