JASPER — When explaining the dangers of a community putting all their eggs in one basket, Chris Holcomb thinks of his hometown of Elkhart.

Memories of the struggles the Northern Indiana city — known as the RV Capital of the World — experienced during the United States’ latest recession are still fresh in his mind. Plant closures. Layoffs. Massive unemployment.

What if catastrophe struck the furniture industry? How could it affect Dubois County, home to the Wood Capital of the World?

“One of the things that we look at as economic development consultants is, right now things are fine, but what do you want to be anticipating to avoid something like that happening in the future?” Holcomb, a project consultant with Thomas P. Miller & Associates of Indianapolis, said in an interview during Wednesday’s Jasper Common Council meeting. “If some sort of shock comes to the furniture industry — not that we’re anticipating that it will — but if it were to, then you don’t want to [have] all your eggs in one basket.”

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Holcomb and Amanda Straight, a senior project consultant at TPM&A, shared ways Dubois County could diversify its economy.

Currently, the county is among the bottom 20% in the nation when it comes to industry diversity.

Representatives from TPM&A have worked alongside Taylor Siefker Williams Design Group and Midwestern Engineers on Jasper’s ongoing comprehensive planning. The findings they discussed Wednesday were pulled from a countywide economic resiliency study that will factor into the final plan. That study was funded through a partnership between the city and Dubois Strong.

Of the roughly 31,000 jobs in the county, 38.4% of them are in the manufacturing field. And, 24% of the county’s jobs are tied to furniture manufacturing.

Straight explained that manufacturing is a great economic driver for wealth in the county and is a key component of the local economy. But based on her research, continued growth won’t be easy.

“Manufacturing growth is something that is going to be challenging based on kind of global factors over the next five years,” Straight told the council. “And so for communities that have such a strong manufacturing employment, that’s an area of concern.”

She defined economic resiliency as a community’s ability to recover from economic disruptions that can negatively affect employment.

Holcomb explained that some ways Dubois County could lessen its dependency on manufacturing and the furniture industry are by filling supply chain gaps to circulate more money within the local economy; bolstering other trades that use wood products; and pursuing industries that complement the county’s strengths, make it a more well-rounded place or are already growing at an above-average pace.

“A key component of this is really understanding which of these types of industries you might want to target,” Straight told the council. “Which one’s a better fit for Jasper or other areas of the county. And really developing kind of a plan to attract those types of businesses.”

Mayor Dean Vonderheide thanked the duo for their presentation, saying it gives the council something to think about.

“Some of those industries are things we don’t see a lot of here in Dubois County,” he said. “It might be something we could attract.”
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