Allen County stands tall, continues growth in 2020

FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Allen County stood tall despite the headwinds in 2020, becoming one of the fastest-growing communities in the Great Lakes region. The community added more than 1,800 new jobs and, for the third consecutive year, set a new record for attracting and retaining talent. These successes, combined with statewide, regional, and national recognition, headlined the year for Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Allen County community.

“I am continually amazed by the way this community works together,” said John Urbahns, CEO of GFW Inc. “In a year that was difficult for so many, it’s been inspiring to see the people and businesses of Allen County take care of each other. The work done across the community—this year and in previous years—gives us the momentum to keep moving forward and building an even stronger Allen County for everyone.”

Talent Attraction / Retention

Allen County added 1,492 residents due to domestic migration in 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in March 2020. It was the third consecutive year in which the county posted its best single-year total; the Census Bureau began tracking net domestic migration in 1991.

Net domestic migration measures how many people moved into a community from other U.S. locales, versus how many moved away to other U.S. communities. The data represents a significant turnaround within the past decade:

YearNet Domestic Migration Growth/Loss
2012-1,082
2013-245
2014-798
2015-160
2016-597
2017+80
2018+685
2019+1,492

In total, the county’s population grew by 4,137 people (1.0%) in 2019, making Allen County the third-fastest-growing metro area in the Great Lakes region. Realtor.com ranked Fort Wayne the hottest real estate market in America for eight consecutive months: June 2019 through January 2020.

To ramp up the community’s talent retention efforts, in October GFW Inc. launched the new Onboard Fort Wayne program. Onboard Fort Wayne is designed to welcome new professionals and their significant others/families to the community via three main avenues:

  1. Welcome events where participants can meet other newcomers and learn about the community
  2. “Community Connectors”—ambassadors who can serve in a concierge role, answering questions and guiding new residents to find their new local favorites
  3. Online resources that serve as a 24/7 guide to the community

Onboard Fort Wayne aims to assist local companies with one of their top challenges: attracting and retaining top talent. The program is open to GFW Inc. investors and their employees.

Economic Development

GFW Inc. assisted companies that invested more than $169 million in Allen County during the year. Other commitments included:

  • 20 business expansions and relocations.
  • 1,850+ new jobs.
  • More than $69 million in new annual payroll.

Of the 20 deals, 12 involved companies that were new to Allen County; eight were companies expanding their existing local operations.

Major expansion and relocation announcements included:

CompanyNew JobsInvestment
Amazon1,320$89 million
Sortera Alloys100$4.2 million
Byrna Technologies80$739,500
Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream74$41.4 million
Precision Vehicle Logistics40$6.2 million
Aptera40$1.9 million

In December, Allen County officials announced they had issued more than $1 billion in building permits for the fourth consecutive year. The county had never eclipsed the $1 billion mark in any year prior to 2017.

“Despite the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen County has shown resilience in 2020 with another year of building permit values exceeding $1 billion,” Allen County Commissioners Rich Beck, Therese Brown, and Nelson Peters said in a joint statement. “Additionally, our efforts through our land banking program to create new sites in the market have been vital to strengthening our competitive position and attracting new investments to our community. With these solid gains occurring in a challenging year, we look forward to continued success ahead.”

Despite COVID-19, GFW Inc. staffers met, often virtually, with representatives from more than 500 Allen County businesses in 2020. These visits are designed to help current Allen County businesses thrive and retain jobs.

GFW Inc.’s website was named one of “America’s Best Economic Development Websites for 2021” by Golden Shovel Agency, a marketing agency that works with economic development organizations across North America.

Quality of Place

GFW Inc. assisted on several major quality-of-place projects designed to help Allen County attract and retain jobs and talent, including:

  • Electric Works – In February, Do it Best announced plans to move its world headquarters to the former General Electric plant, leasing up to 220,000 square feet of space. In total, more than a dozen companies have committed to become tenants at Electric Works. A local funding package was recommitted in November, clearing the path toward beginning the two-year construction phase on the West Campus.
  • The Bradley Boutique Hotel – Construction continues on a $27-million boutique hotel at the northwest corner of Main and Harrison streets in downtown Fort Wayne. The project is led by Vera Bradley co-founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, who aims to open the five-story hotel in Spring 2021.
  • Riverfront Development – Work has begun on Phases II and III, which focus on attracting private investment to the downtown riverfront. Indianapolis-based Barrett & Stokely plans to begin construction just east of Promenade Park on an $89-million facility that will include retail space, living space, and a parking garage.
  • The Landing – All of the historic district’s commercial space is spoken for, with businesses still moving in. Apartment units on The Landing continue to lease up as renovations are completed.
  • Improvements in East Allen County – Crews completed upgrades at Monroeville Community Park, and local leaders celebrated the groundbreaking for streetscape improvements in downtown Leo. Additional projects from the “East Allen Rural Revival” strategy are in the planning stages. These projects are the result of the NewAllen Alliance winning a statewide Stellar Communities designation from the Indiana Office of Community & Rural Affairs, unlocking funding for improvements in Grabill, Harlan, Hoagland, New Haven, Leo-Cedarville, Monroeville, and Woodburn.

Thanks in large part to these quality-of-place improvements, Fort Wayne was named the 2020 Indiana Community of the Year by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

“Even through the challenges of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our community came together to ensure job growth and retention would continue,” Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said. “We had a productive year of new economic development projects to benefit Fort Wayne and Allen County. I’m encouraged that we’re positioned for a successful future.”

Pandemic Response

As COVID-19 emerged in the spring, the GFW Inc. team quickly responded to help local businesses handle the pandemic. Key response items included:

  • Reaching out to local businesses with 65,000+ emails and phone calls—sharing updates about assistance programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, information about the state’s Back on Track plan, and check-ins to offer encouragement and help with any individual challenges.
  • Creating an online COVID-19 Resource Hub, featuring information to help businesses weather the pandemic.
  • Producing 17 “Roadmap to a Healthy Reopening” webinars. Presented in partnership with Parkview Health, the Allen County Department of Health, and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, the webinars aimed to help local business and nonprofit leaders understand the precautions needed to reopen amid the pandemic. Combined, these webinars garnered more than 12,000 views.
  • Administering the Fort Wayne-Allen County CARES Grant program in partnership with the City of Fort Wayne and Allen County. About $1 million in grants were distributed to more than 200 local small businesses and nonprofits.
  • Partnering with the City of Fort Wayne on the Meters with a Mission program, which provided a unique fundraising opportunity for local nonprofits that were affected by the pandemic.

In October, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cited GFW Inc.’s pandemic response as “best practice” for local chambers of commerce.

Chamber of Commerce

GFW Inc. received a variety of honors in 2020, including being named a finalist for the national Chamber of the Year award by the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE). The GFW Inc. Bridge Program was also recognized with a statewide Excellence Award for Innovation by the Indiana Chamber Executives Association (ICEA).

Launched in 2019 to boost the Allen County startup scene, the Bridge Program currently enrolls 15 corporate “Bridge Sponsors” to support, connect, and mentor 15 “Bridge Entrepreneurs” for a five-year period. A second cohort of 10 investors and entrepreneurs will soon be announced.

Networking events are a hallmark of every chamber of commerce. In true 2020 fashion, the GFW Inc. staff adjusted to offer virtual networking opportunities, beginning in April, via Zoom. Some in-person events, such as ribbon-cutting ceremonies, the Greater Golf Open, and the GFW Inc. Annual Meeting, were able to continue while observing government-mandated and industry-standard protocols.

The year also brought new elements to GFW Inc.’s leadership programs; a combined 56 individuals graduated in October from the longstanding Leadership Fort Wayne program and the inaugural Leadership 2.0 cohort. Leadership 2.0 was created in 2019 to help individuals take their leadership skills to the next level.

GFW Inc. also stepped up its commitment to fighting systemic racism and racial injustice in the business community, announcing a series of initiatives including:

  • Webinar series and roundtable discussions – Experts lead conversations on various topics including race in the workplace, HR policies, workplace environment, and diversity training. These sessions are now being delivered as part of the United Front initiative, of which GFW Inc. is a founding partner.
  • Leadership Fort Wayne expansion/enhancements – GFW Inc. raised funds to designate 13 seats specifically for people from underrepresented backgrounds in the upcoming Leadership Fort Wayne cohort. With these individuals included, the LFW cohort will better reflect the diversity and perspectives of our community. The program’s curriculum will also be expanded; for example, the “history of Fort Wayne” portion will be updated to include topics such as redlining and bussing.
  • Bridge Program expansion – The inaugural cohort of 15 startups included 10 businesses owned by people from underrepresented backgrounds. To build on this momentum, the next cohort will include 10 corporate sponsors supporting additional entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds.

“As a business community, we can lead the way to a more inclusive Allen County,” said Brenda Gerber Vincent, GFW Inc. VP of community and corporate impact. “It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s good for business. Research has shown that companies with a more diverse workforce tend to attract top talent and be more profitable.”

Looking Ahead

Several business expansions and attractions continue to work their way through the process in several areas of Allen County. And, at least seven major building projects are expected to be in some stage of construction in 2021, representing a total investment of approximately $731 million. These projects include:

  • Riverfront Development (Phases II and III).
  • The Riverfront at Promenade Park (mixed-use development east of Promenade Park).
  • The Lofts at Headwaters Park.
  • Electric Works (West Campus).
  • The Bradley Boutique Hotel.
  • Lutheran Downtown Hospital.
  • Project Gateway (terminal expansion at Fort Wayne International Airport).

Additional projects, particularly in east Allen County, are in the pre-development phase.

To set the stage for future development, staff members will work with partners from Allen County and the City of Fort Wayne to create a comprehensive five-year economic development strategy for the community.

“We’re seeing incredible investment in our community—from within, from across the country, and from around the world. That’s a reason for optimism,” Urbahns said. “There’s no doubt we’re making progress in our mission of building a nationally recognized economy, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We’re already working tirelessly to make 2021 the best this community has ever had.”

About Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

Greater Fort Wayne (GFW) Inc. serves Fort Wayne and Allen County, Indiana, as its primary point of contact for economic growth. GFW Inc. focuses on prosperity and community vibrancy through economic development, advocacy, programs and resources that support business success, leadership development, graduate retention and community engagement.