RICHMOND, Ind. — Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wayne County is well-placed for economic success, needing to “sell, sell, sell” itself.
“You already have the location, location, location,” Holcomb said while answering questions for about 175 people who attended Thursday’s Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce Governor’s Luncheon at Forest Hills Country Club.
The governor said 40,000 vehicles a day pass through Wayne County, many carrying freight. The county is “on the 50-yard-line” of a partnership involving the Indiana Department of Transportation and federal agencies that stretches from Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio.
“Being on that flight path, being on that thoroughfare is a huge, huge benefit,” Holcomb said.
The border county also has an advantage attracting out-of-state residents to move to Indiana.
“You have a target-rich environment over there in Ohio,” Holcomb said.
The state has tripled foreign investment, Holcomb said, and it must decide what industries to attract and must consider the industries of the future and what supplies those industries. He said that drawing new investment means being fast and first, something that’s in Indiana’s DNA because of its auto racing roots.
“We made a ton of 2 a.m., 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. phone calls,” Holcomb said about courting foreign investors.
Holcomb also talked about a quick trip to Israel. The governor slept on the plane on the way to Israel, spent one night in the country and slept on the plane as he returned home. That quick trip, he said, is leading to significant investment in the state.
Businesses must use creative methods to attract and retain workers, said Holcomb, who recited a Microsoft study that stated 41% of workers are thinking about switching jobs or quitting the jobs they currently have. He also related a story about a business that attracted workers by paying for employee hunting and fishing licenses, then paying for ammunition as well.
A business’s issue is deciding what type of business it wants to be be, creating a culture and developing relationships. The state’s role, according to Holcomb, is to make sure resources are available, including to train workers in needed fields.
“We will pay to skill you up,” he said.
Communities then must also decide what kind of communities they want to be, developing priorities and innovations and making their communities places where people want to live. The thought process should include where the community wants to be 10, 20 or 30 years ahead, Holcomb said.
The state’s Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative provides Indiana’s regions an opportunity to compete for as much as $50 million to fund projects. Wayne County is part of the East Central Indiana Regional Partnership with Blackford, Delaware, Grant, Henry, Jay and Randolph counties.
Holcomb expects the $500 million state investment to attract at least another $2 billion in philanthropic, corporate and municipal money for projects. It also provides the state an opportunity to better understand the unique communities.
“This will also give us, the state, a look into every region and how they see themselves and how they’re thinking,” Holcomb said.
The state can then offer assistance with concerns or issues the communities face. He showed he knows Wayne County’s location isn’t always an advantage when he used the example of INDOT finding out how to make sure there aren’t truck backups on I-70, drawing laughs.
Holcomb said Indiana will not wait for the federal government to develop infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and broadband internet. The state will develop its platform and appreciate anything the federal government adds.
As an example, Holcomb cited $250 million available for broadband initiatives within the state. Responding to a question from moderator Jeff Carter, president of Bethany Theological Seminary, Holcomb said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed issues with the state’s broadband, but the state will react to become better.
“I never shy away from or think of technology as an adversary,” Holcomb said. “I see it as an ally. We have to adjust to the reality.”
Carter asked Holcomb about the 15-member Public Health Commission that’s been created. The commission will represent diverse realms of expertise to study the structure, operations, funding and outcomes of Indiana’s healthcare system in addition to how data is gained and for what that data is used.
The state must better attract specialists, including psychiatrists and mental health professionals, Holcomb said.
“They’re not just talking about the structure, but they’re going to address what are needs and then how to get there, the road map on how to attract more,” Holcomb said of the commission after the program. “We’ll continue to lean into how do we work in the private sector with businesses and individuals to make sure that those resources are there. In large part, that’s what the commission is all about, the structure and how the operations occur from a state-local perspective.”
Carter also asked about Karrah Herring, the state’s chief equity, inclusion and opportunity officer, and the state’s public disparity dataport. Holcomb said Herring holds the administration accountable because he cannot ask others to do something he’s not doing himself. The goal is to remove barriers and hurdles from Hoosiers’ paths, even if they don’t know those barriers and hurdles exist or that there are programs available to help remove them.
“I want someone who wakes up every single day and says, ‘How do we increase awareness and access to what’s there,’” Holcomb said. He later added, “This is all about, at the end of the day, converting more have-nots into haves.”
Holcomb said his agenda for the 2022 legislative short session will be communicated in December, and the administration is working “feverishly” on what will be included. He said such issues as economic development, tax policy, workforce development, personal heath and well-being and infrastructure will be addressed.
“You should not be surprised,” Holcomb said. “I am like a skipping record. I am very focused on a few thoughts.”
One thought remains COVID-19. Wayne County and Indiana are seeing a surge of cases and deaths while vaccination percentages lag. Holcomb recently revamped policies for school quarantines to try and keep children in school.
“We have to make sure they’re able to quarantine, and we have to make sure that we’re getting the data that we need, the case numbers, and we have to make sure that we’re supplying the schools with what they need, meaning rapid tests, etc., to be able to keep those kiddos in class,” he said. “So, we’ll continue to monitor.”
Hospitalizations have increased sharply, with the majority of deaths and of those in hospitals, in intensive care units and on ventilators being Hoosiers who have not been vaccinated. Clearly, Holcomb said, the answer is to be vaccinated.
“We have the resources,” he said. “Now, we need the will, because what is happening and what’s a bit frustrating to me at least is the folks that are holding out for various reasons are the very ones that are costing others not just their liberty, but cost them dollars, as well.”
None of the seven Wayne County residents who have died from COVID complications in September has been fully vaccinated.
“It’s so sad that I learn about folks who die because of their resistance when there’ve been well over 300 million shots in arms in American,” Holcomb said. “The data is there, the facts are there, and you just look week-by-week the unvaccinated who are going in the hospital who are spreading. If you’re vaccinated and you happen to get it, it’s like a cold, but if you’re not, it can lead to very dire outcomes.
“And we can avoid that.”