Throughout Johnson County, unprecedented collaboration is leading to a flurry of improvements.
Committees are discussing ways to link Greenwood to Edinburgh with an attractive trail system. A common zoning code is an idea to give buildings and signs along State Road 135 an aesthetically pleasing look.
Government leaders from Bargersville, Whiteland and Franklin meet monthly to discuss countywide issues instead of working on them separately.
As it finishes up its first year of work, Aspire Johnson County is mapping out ways to continue uniting the community to promote and improve Johnson County.
Business, government and nonprofit leaders have identified the most pressing concerns, such as how to build an identity for the county and attract the best young talent to live and work in the community.
Now they’re planning to become a permanent group with a full-time staff.
“Everyone is asking how we can help each other benefit in a win-win situation,” said Stephen Spencer, founder of Advantis Medical and a contributor to Aspire Johnson County. “A lot of us have businesses, serve on nonprofits. We have the best leaders, people who are used to donating their time, and they’re not going to walk away from this.”
Aspire Johnson County is an initiative of the Johnson County Development Corp., which focuses on economic development in the county. The concept was to gather community leaders to brainstorm, research and put into action ways to make the county more attractive.
“It’s very refreshing to see the ‘you’ and ‘us’ turn to ‘we.’ There’s this global attitude, thinking what can we do from the top of the county to the bottom,” said Larry Heydon, CEO of Johnson Memorial Hospital.
After receiving a grant of $5,333 from the Johnson County Community Foundation, the group hired consultant Lee Lewellen to research, organize volunteers into committees and keep members on task.
‘Bridging that gap’
Since March, the effort has brought together people from organizations such as Ivy Tech Community College and the Johnson County Public Library with businesses such as Johnson Memorial Hospital and Advantis Medical.
Mayors of Franklin and Greenwood and representatives from Bargersville, Trafalgar, Whiteland and other towns have been meeting monthly.
“We’re bridging that gap that had been there, across all governmental offices,” Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers said. “We’ve made that commitment to sit down together and be able to talk about our issues.”
What started as a group of about 30 has grown to include more than 100 working to bring more business to Johnson County.
“When you think about the intellect, the experience and the skill set these folks are bringing, it’s an incredible opportunity for Johnson County,” said Cheryl Morphew, Johnson County
Development Corp. chief executive officer. “We’re able to plug them into something they feel passionate about, and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
Members have split into committees to look at five specific issues.
A recreation committee has been researching and laying out the pathways that could become a north-south trail system from one end of the county to the other.
Another committee focused on attracting highly educated residents to the county as well as keeping those who grow up here. Part of their solution was to work with employers and schools, such as Central Nine Career Center, to get talented young people into local jobs.
“The most successful communities we’ve worked with have created the pathways between K-12 education, higher education and employers themselves,” said Tina Gross, executive director of the Franklin campus of Ivy Tech Community College.
Seeking a uniform look
An infrastructure committee has focused on giving major thoroughfares, such as State Road 135, an aesthetic upgrade. Its members have researched what other counties, such as Hamilton and Hendricks, have done to make their major roadways appealing.
Members also have compiled the various zoning regulations along those roads into a single packet of information with the hope of working with county and municipal governments to create a uniform look.
“Typically, those corridors are done within a municipal boundary. But what happens when you cross into that other boundary? When Greenwood ends, does it abruptly change, or is there this beautiful picture that you encompass as Johnson County?” Morphew said.
One of the group’s most visible contributions has come through the branding committee, which has been supporting an innkeeper’s tax that could generate money from tourists who stay in local hotels.
The tax would support a tourism board, helping to strengthen the county’s brand and marketing appeal through a website and other promotions.
Aspire Johnson County’s branding committee compiled financial figures, talked to experts and got independent studies from other counties where innkeeper’s taxes are in place. Currently in Indiana, 71 counties have some form of the tax.
“We spent a lot of hours researching how these function, what kind of money, how it would be structured, and provided a 56-page report that if they wanted to do this, it’s what this would look like,” said Jeff Owen, a communications consultant and member of the development corporation board.
The development corporation voted to evaluate the effort and decide if Aspire Johnson County should continue. Members unanimously voted to extend it. Lewellen will continue to facilitate the group.
The teams are prepared to move forward on the goals they’ve set and will keep meeting monthly. But organizers also hope to put something more permanent in place.
They were wary of creating a new nonprofit group in the county. So to fund the program, Aspire Johnson County will look for two or three sponsors and underwriters.
Organizers also see the need for a central staff to focus entirely on the program’s goals, Heydon said. All of the current members have their own careers.
Some, such as Heydon and Morphew, have duties with the Johnson County Development Corp.
They are proud of the work they’ve done thus far but understand that more is needed to ensure Johnson County continues to be prosperous in the future.
“Whatever is good enough today is not going to be good enough tomorrow,” Myers said. “When we finish one project, we already have to be thinking about what the next project will be.
“We want Johnson County to continue to grow and become a better community every day.”