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New panel stresses cooperation over competition

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If Johnson County is going to compete and excel economically in the future, its leaders will have to attract diverse industry to the area.

Major transportation corridors moving both north-south and east-west need to be developed, and attention needs to be paid to the types of businesses going in along them. Towns and cities throughout the county need to work together, rather than vying for their own advantages.

Figuring out how to make those recommendations a reality is the focus of a new public-private effort. Business owners, elected officials and other community leaders have come together to map the future success of Johnson County.

The group is meeting to plan for ways to bring in new and innovative businesses, retain the talent already living here and develop key economic corridors throughout the county.

Calling itself Aspire Johnson County, the group has a goal for all of the county’s communities to work together to ensure future decisions benefit the county as a whole.

“There’s this overarching impact of bringing in the right companies and the right-paying jobs,” said Cheryl Morphew, president and CEO of the Johnson County Development Corp. “We can’t continue to do that if we stay the course. Everyone else is moving forward and strategizing how to maintain their competitive edge. We’re hoping this can raise us all.”

Aspire Johnson County is the result of discussions that have been ongoing throughout the county for the past decade, said Brent Tilson, owner of Tilson HR and co-chairman of Aspire Johnson County.

A topic of discussion whenever business leaders and government officials would gather is what more can be done to make Johnson County more attractive, he said.

Members of the Johnson County Development Corp., a nonprofit organization focused on economic advancement for the county, had noted these ideas. But they felt it was time to gather people together and move from the idea stage to action.

“Up until this point, in the

private sector, there have been these kinds of discussions about the broader reality of where we are. We’re not competing among ourselves; we’re competing globally,” Morphew said. “Our board decided that since we work across all municipal lines, why not try to formalize those conversations into one room.”

In order to get started, the development corporation applied for funding from the Johnson County Community Foundation. A grant of $5,333 was given to hire a consultant to provide research, organize volunteers into committees and keep members on task.

To lead the group, the development corporation hired Lee Lewellen, a specialist in nonprofit organization management who has worked with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the Purdue Center for Regional Development.

Lewellen gathered a wide-ranging group of people from organizations such as Franklin College, the Johnson County Public Library and the United Way of Johnson County to give ideas.

Businesses such as MainSource Bank, Sherman & Armbruster and Endress+Hauser also sent representatives.

“It’s a chance to maximize the many talents we have in this county, both in the private sector and public sector, and bring those assets together,” said Larry Heydon, CEO of Johnson Memorial Hospital and co-chairman of Aspire Johnson County. “In the end, we want to grow the county on many fronts — population,

infrastructure, the overall benefits it can bring to its citizens.”

From group discussions and individual interviews, Lewellen brought a list of five main ideas to start working on. Those ideas ranged from collaborating between local governments to promoting the county as a desirable community to live and work in, Morphew said.

The participating business and civic leaders were split into groups, each one looking at one of those five priorities. Lewellen has asked them to meet repeatedly over 30 days to discuss their topic, come up with points they need to act on and come back to report to the larger group.

While the development corporation has launched the effort, the hope is that as it evolves and continues to gain participants so that others will take over leadership.

“We chose Lee (Lewellen) because the model that he has used throughout the state and in other states shows that it is self-sustaining, because the groups take ownership,” Morphew said. “They learn that they can work together, and that it’s their responsibility to keep it going.”

Heydon said that the group is in its infancy, with all of the participants mostly learning how to work together for a common goal. Members are still joining the groups, and the invitation is still open to community members to get involved.

But eventually, they’ll come up with hard plans of action that they can bring to town, city and county councils to act on.

“As we go through this process, ideas will germinate, things will grow, and we’ll have these ‘aha’ moments were we realize that we need to spend more time on these goals,” Tilson said. “That’s the exciting thing about this, to take what we have and look to maximize the overall county.”

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