Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor, Clarion News

Economic development isn't just attracting a company with good-paying jobs and benefits to the county. It's much more than that, said Mike Thissen, director of the Crawford County Economic Development Corp.

Thissen spoke in January about a recent State of the Economy presentation he made to the Crawford County Council, highlighting accomplishments from the past year and outlining future goals.

The county's industrial park, which had lost certification, has achieved silver status with the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs and is now marketed on the state website as shovel-ready. That's a prerequisite for most companies looking for a site.

Thissen said there have been 35 statewide hard leads and nine soft leads during the past year with 47 site selectors engaged. There were 17 site visits with five of those being "full windshield," in which the visitor was given a tour of the community.

Thissen said every bit as important to local economic development is a focus on existing companies and growing small businesses.

"Small business is what will make us grow," he said. "We have to grow our own."

Thissen, who's closing in on two years as economic development director, said the Crawford County EDC has developed a three-year plan. The corporation was formed to allow for a more streamlined business-development process. As a private entity, the corporation does not have to disclose as much information about activities as was required when economic development was handled by county government and can make decisions much more quickly.

The county provided $500,000 to the Crawford County EDC last year and this year budgeted $235,000 in EDIT funds. Thissen explained the amount of public funds is on a decreasing scale. This year, the investment represents 70% of EDIT funds. By 2023, the portion of EDIT funds dedicated to economic development falls to 40%, leaving the remainder of EDIT funds for the county to use for other items. The plan is for the amount of EDIT funds dedicated to economic development to fall even further after that.

"The corporation was built so EDIT funds will increase over time to the county," he said. The initial $500,000 was "an investment for long-term growth. We need to invest for our future."

The amount in reserve is being earmarked for infrastructure updates such as marketing, workforce development programs, matching funds for grants and other needed items.

A future without a plan is an empty one, said Thissen.

"If everybody is just thinking about today, we will die," he said.

And that future must include buy-in from the community as successful economic development is a team sport, according to Thissen.

"I call it community preparedness; we have to prepare the community," he said.

In Thissen's first year, he and the board devoted extensive time and effort to planning. Working with the Community Foundation of Crawford County, Crawford County Chamber of Commerce, Crawford County Community School Corp., Crawford County Tourism Board and Purdue Extension, the EDC gathered information from residents and developed a quality of place and workplace attraction plan. The plan is a road map as it identifies action items for the immediate future and looks ahead during the next decade.

The plan involved ample opportunity for public input, including community input sessions, 12 stakeholder meetings, a countywide survey and data analysis.

"We believe in Crawford County and its growth," said Thissen.

The Crawford County EDC has streamlined the process for small businesses to apply for funds through the revolving loan fund. Last year, $173,000 was distributed to local entrepreneurs.

Thissen is focusing on his office becoming a resource for small businesses and, for anyone thinking about starting one, bringing outside help to the county. A representative from the Small Business Development Center office in Bloomington comes to Crawford County regularly, providing assistance to those working to develop a business plan.

The Crawford County EDC is also identifying potential areas for growth and taking steps to promote those. The EDC has scheduled a public open house for Friday, Feb. 14.

Last year, much time was spent looking inward, examining the county's strengths and opportunities for growth. This year, it's time to turn outward, said Thissen.

"We're working to connect people to jobs," he said, explaining he's ready to help any resident with resumé building, interview tips, networking, etc. "Please come here and see if we can get you from point A to point B."

As the county's economy has been flat over time, "we're hoping to create conditions to move forward," he added.

Crawford County's population is both declining and aging, which creates economic development challenges. One bright spot, said Thissen, is that the labor force (people who live in the county and are employed) increased by 338.

The Crawford County EDC is currently completing a study to determine the percentage of residents who drive out of the county to work.

Thissen said another big focus is broadband access; 99% of residents do not have fixed broadband access. That puts businesses, students and employees at a disadvantage.

Thissen believes economic development is a community effort and said each resident represents the county. While he can lead the effort, progress requires wider input.

"Get involved; there's plenty of opportunity to volunteer," he said. "Just come see me. There's plenty of projects and task forces."