In the last decade, nearly 40 companies have relocated in Johnson County. Another 45 local firms have expanded their existing businesses. But in the late 1980s, that economic prowess had not yet been realized.
Few large industries made their homes in the county. Even those businesses who wanted to relocate had no single resource to help them work with government officials, find available land and learn about the county itself.
The time was right for local business leaders and government officials to fill that gap.
Twenty-five years later, that Johnson County Development Corp. has become an economic engine to the area. The private-public partnership has helped facilitate a conservative estimate of more than $1.5 billion in industrial investment within the county since 1991, and has been active in doubling private sector jobs locally over that time.
With founding partners such as Johnson County REMC, Franklin College and the Daily Journal still actively involved in the organization, and nearly 50 others signed on as investors, the county continues to build on a strong economic foundation.
“We need to think about economic development differently if we want to maintain a competitive advantage, because it’s not just about sites and buildings anymore. It’s about how to attract that talent,” said Cheryl Morphew, president and CEO of the corporation.
The Johnson County Development Corp. was created to provide economic development services to companies throughout the county.
The staff works closely with site selectors to choose an ideal location for a business. They can provide comprehensive research about potential customers and workforce in the area. To help work out economic incentives, the corporation works as a liaison between businesses and government.
Most importantly, they work for the entire county, not just one town or area, said Bob Swinehamer, one of the founding members of the corporation.
“Johnson County Development Corp. was the first organization that was truly a county-wide organization, where everyone was working together,” he said. “They recognized that even if an industry located in Greenwood, it would help the tax base in all of Johnson County. It would provide jobs for people all over. There was finally this coordinated effort.”
The story of the development corporation starts with this gap in the late 1980s.
Chet Aubin, the CEO at Johnson County REMC, had just moved to Johnson County from Bartholomew County. Soon after his move, he heard of a company that was looking for land to build a new manufacturing facility in the region.
Aubin worked with then-Franklin Mayor Eddy Teets, and asked about getting the county’s economic development group together to woo this business. He learned that Johnson County had no such group. Franklin has a director of economic development, and each utility company did as well. But no one was working together.
“Chet was able to share with them the importance of having that clearinghouse, like Columbus did. The difference is, they wanted this to be county-wide,” Morphew said. “They really pulled together a group of business, community leaders and mayors to have the conversation about forming an organization like this.”
Figures such as Mark Horton with PSI Energy, Jim Finan with Indiana Gas and Ted Grossnickle from Franklin College united to help bring the corporation together. Daily Journal publisher at the time Bud Herron also was instrumental and a founding member.
The core group of 19 founding partners launched the development corporation in 1991. The initial plan was to just have a Franklin development corporation. But the utility companies suggested expanding it outward.
“The utilities said that they could pool their resources, and then get Greenwood and Franklin involved to create something bigger than one city,” Swinehamer said.
White River Township resident Pat Vercauteren was the first director of the organization. He had previously worked for the Indiana Department of Commerce, and had intimate knowledge of the intricacies of economic development.
He was officially hired in late 1990.
“This was an opportunity to start from scratch,” he said. “I had done economic development my entire career. But I had never been the first person hired, who could set up the organization. I always followed someone else.”
The goal was multi-fold. While the development corporation could provide answers to businesses and industry who came to them interested in the county, members would also spread the word about what makes Johnson County an ideal place to locate.
The ultimate end result was to increase assessed value of property within the county, and increase good-paying jobs, Vercauteren said.
The initial budget for the development corporation was $550,000 total for the first three years.
One of the first steps was establishing an industry-ready business sector, a site with sewer and water where companies could start building.
Fred Linville, a farmer and founding board member of the corporation, provided the initial 400 acres of farmland for that purpose.
“I told Pat at the time I didn’t want to do that. That 400-acre field was a great farm field,” Linville said. “But it’s been good for me, good for Franklin and good for the whole county.”
That site turned out to be the driving force in getting the corporation moving, Vercauteren said.
“Without Fred’s property, we weren’t going very far very fast,” he said. “We would have gotten there eventually, but he had everything that we needed right away.”
In the years immediately following its founding, the organization helped attract new businesses such as Mitsubishi Climate Control, Superior Essex and American Industrial Corp.
All three came to the county in the 1990s, and remain in business today.
More recently, companies such as Mitsubishi Turbo Engine America and Premium Composite Technology have made their homes in Johnson County through the corporation’s influence.
“Continually, it was everyone coming together to figure out how to make the thing work,” Vercauteren said. “There weren’t any real naysayers. Not everyone loved everything all the time, but if this is what it took to get the project, and the project was good for Johnson County as a whole, those were the bottom lines.”
A peak into the corporation’s impact can be seen in the way county demographics have changed since it was founded.
The population of Johnson County has grown by 70 percent since 1990, with the number of private sector jobs growing by 78 percent over the same time.
Since 1991, Johnson County ranks among the top 200 counties in the U.S. of people moving in to live.
“It’s amazing the growth that Johnson County has had over these 25 years. While we’re not claiming we’re directly responsible at all, our mission has been to work with our municipalities to facilitate that environment that’s conducive to growth, both to jobs and investment,” Morphew said.
One of the strengths of the organization has been support from local government, including Franklin, Greenwood, Whiteland and Bargersville, as well as Johnson County.
In order to bring businesses to the county, everyone has to be working together, Morphew said.
“It’s a team sport. Anyone who tells you it isn’t is full of themselves. We are not decision makers. We’re the facilitators, the cheerleader for our communities, because many times we’re on the very front end of that project,” she said.
The formation of the Johnson County Development Corp. also helped coalesce support for other long-term efforts. Leadership Johnson County and the Johnson County Community Foundation were created in its wake to foster and strengthen the entire community top to bottom.
“In a lot of ways, the development corporation broke the ice for everyone to work together. You don’t have that competition or rivalry between the communities like there used to be,” Swinehamer said. “That’s something I’m very proud to have been a part of.”
As Johnson County has grown and changed, so too has the corporation’s approach to attracting new businesses and more jobs to the area. Now with a budget of $418,950 annually, it has shifted its approach to attracting business.
In the 1990s, people moved to the cities and towns where there were jobs available to them. Now, more and more young workers are choosing to live in a place they enjoy, then finding a job from there, Morphew said.
Amenities such as trails, the ability to walk or bike to work and high-quality restaurants and entertainment are vital in making Johnson County communities stand out.
Those core concepts will continue to influence the Johnson County Development Corp., and its offshoot effort Aspire Johnson County, in the near future.
“The changing face of economic development is understanding that it’s about place, about quality of life that will draw folks here,” she said. “They want to love where they are, and that’s what we want to emphasize.”
Johnson County Development Corp.
What: A public-private partnership created to provide economic development services to companies throughout the county, including site location, comprehensive research about potential customers, and serving as a go-between for businesses and government officials.
Number of original investors/board members: 19
Current board members: 37
Current budget: $418,950
President/CEO: Cheryl Morphew
Johnson County Development Corp.
$1.5 billion: Conservative estimate of industrial investment in Johnson County since the Johnson County Development Corp. was founded in 1991.
More than 8,000: Jobs estimated to have been created from that investment.
1,842: Number of private business establishments in Johnson County in 1990
3,098: Number of private business establishments in Johnson County in 2015
41 percent: Growth of private business establishments over that time.
78 percent: Growth of local private sector jobs in between 1990 and 2014, from about 24,000 to about 43,000
228: Proposed retained jobs
643: Proposed new jobs
$32.3 million: Proposed capital investment
16: Existing Johnson County companies who expanded or grew
356: Proposed retained jobs
817: Proposed new jobs
$98 million: Proposed capital investment
10: Existing Johnson County companies who expanded or grew
— Information provided by the Indiana Business Research Center and the Johnson County Development Corp.