MILFORD — Kosciusko Economic Development Corporation President George Robertson made his yearly report to the Milford Redevelopment Commission at its monthly meeting Monday, April 10, at town hall. Robertson’s focus was on the importance of education and housing to Kosciusko County’s future, and how TIF districts may change their traditional roles as a result.
“Last year was kind of frustrating,” Robertson stated. By the middle of the year, he said, “prospects had dropped to nothing.” This was primarily due to the election. “Business got nervous.”
Nevertheless, during the last two years more than 500 new manufacturing jobs were added. The county currently has the 40,600 people employed, a long way from 33,000 in 2010. Also, small business confidence is the highest it has been in 20 years, with more small businesses opening than closing.
But Robertson called this high employment a “double-edged sword” because it has also resulted in a shortage of skilled labor. There are, he said, “300 vacant machinist positions in northern Indiana.”
KEDCo has been working on this problem for four years, according to Robertson, working with Ivy Tech to create programs to train workers, and in December 2016 it began using an OKRA grant to train 25 “underemployed” people — those who are not making enough or working two jobs — to help fill the skilled labor shortage.
Another problem is the county has run out of affordable housing. Workers are hard to attract or retain without housing in the $120,000 to $180,000 range. A few years ago, said Robertson, realtors could sell a house in this range within 48 hours. “Now it’s six.”
Part of the problem is these homes are not as attractive to build due to the high costs involved. Developers have $60,000 in a lot before they even start building. Milford’s North Park development is a rare success story.
Milford’s blighted housing issue also offers potential. The renovation of these properties could provide badly needed homes for young people who want to stay in the county but simply cannot afford most of the available homes.
This is also where the redevelopment commission could help.
Currently there is a bill in the legislature, said Robertson, which would enable communities to expedite the process of turning over blighted housing. Entities like the redevelopment commissions could shift their attention from industrial to housing issues. In Claypool this has already been done, with a TIF bond being used to fund affordable housing development. Redevelopment commissions may have to change their charter in this “new world.”
Commission President Dan Brown praised KEDCo for being ahead of the curb in helping to train skilled labor, and agreed there may be a way to take the sting out of low cost housing development with financing through property taxes, as has been done with industrial lots. As commission member Doug Ruch stated, “housing helps the industrial side.”
The old adage of “create the jobs and the people will come” is being turned on its head in Kosciusko County, where perhaps it should say, “build the houses and the people will come.” The jobs are already here.