KENDALLVILLE — A year ago, Gary Gatman stood up during the Noble County Economic Development Corp. annual meeting and talked about the vision for getting a state-of-the-art manufacturing lab where the county could expose both students and adults to advanced manufacturing.

A year later and, voila, the county has an iSMART robotics lab at the Community Learning Center, with programs launching this fall.

Now, Gatman next hopes to speak into existence more infrastructure and programming to support and uplift entrepreneurs.

OK, the robotics lab didn’t come together that easily, but he’s hoping to manifest the same kind of magic for Noble County EDC’s next focus.

“A year ago we pitched that and said ‘This is something that would be really good for our community’ and here we are a year later ready to turn the key,” Noble County EDC Executive Director Gary Gatman said during Be Noble’s annual meeting hosted at the Strand Theatre on Wednesday morning. “The robotics lab happened, but it happened because about a dozen organizations came together to make it happen.”

Kendallville Mayor Suzanne Handshoe opened Wednesday’s meeting with a recap of the development corporation’s last year of accomplishments, chief among them helping to launch a 75,000-square-foot shell building located on Weston Avenue in Kendallville and the $2.4 million iSMART lab at the Community Learning Center.

The shell building — which is more or less a concrete floor, four walls and a tall roof and is then customized to a particular use after its purchased — has already been submitted to site selectors for five different projects and is a Top 3 finalist for an agribusiness considering Kendallville as a site, the mayor said.

Noble County saw more than $41 million in investment from existing businesses in 2021, with another $15 million committed through July of this year. In total, those projects created more than 400 jobs, Handshoe reported.

But after recapping where the county has been, the meeting shifting toward the future and the topic de jure was entrepreneurship.

Be Noble Board Member Tom Leedy of the Dekko Foundation; Julie Heath, the vice president for entrepreneurial ecosystems with the Indiana Economic Development Corp.; and Gatman spent the bulk of Wednesday’s presentation talking about how to spur new businesses and the people who create them.

Entrepreneurial growth is one of the five tenets of the “Rural Community Survival Strategy,” along with leadership development, cultural enhancement, youth engagement and community investment, Leedy said.

And, when focusing on entrepreneurs, the rest of those five points generally weave hand-in-hand with the first.

“Entrepreneurs build assets in the community, they build wealth,” Leedy said. “The more leaders we have living in and working in our communities, the more they’re going to engage in quality of life in our town.”

So what does the county need to spur new ideas and new investment? According to Leedy, not much more than the drive and focus to build the infrastructure and support network for it.

“We don’t have a lack of resources problem. We have a fragmentation of resources problem,” Leedy said. “We have everything we need to be successful.”

Of the more than 900 businesses operating in Noble County, 626 have fewer than 10 employees. The next 106 have between 10 and 20 workers, with only 150 firms with more than 20 workers on their staff, Leedy said, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics and Indiana Department of Workforce Development figures.

Leedy’s presentation tied right into Heath, whose office is solely focused on building resources to support entrepreneurs.

Why? Because new businesses are where Indiana is generating almost all of its new net jobs per year.

Looking at a breakdown of job creation between companies under five years old, those five to 10 years old and those 10 years and older, new firms are the ones adding new jobs.

Young companies have consistently out-created older firms when it comes to new jobs. Even during the Great Recession, when companies were shedding jobs amid the huge economic downturn, young firms still had positive net growth.

“Our entrepreneurs really help with economic resilience when things aren’t great,” Heath said. “This is a real powerhouse that we have in terms of economic resiliency.”

So what’s an impediment to new entrepreneurial growth? Lack of ideas? Capital?

Nope, Heath said. In many cases, it’s simply know-how, and connecting new business owners to the people who are going to help them navigate the rough waters of any startup.

Prior to the meeting, one of the trivia slides playing on the Strand’s big screen asked, “What percentage of small businesses fail in their first year?” The answer — 20%.

Entrepreneurs are more likely to be successful, however, if they’re surrounded by people who can help them, Heath said. That’s not only connections to things like finance or marketing or e-commerce, but even just connection to other entrepreneurs regardless of whether their startups are similar or vastly different.

New businesses, even those with wildly different focuses, all face many similar challenges, so connecting those people can allow them to help each other navigate those problems.

Heath, prior to her position with the IEDC, managed a co-working space, a place where entrepreneurs are able to go to to work on their projects and have access to internet, printers, meeting rooms and other support services that are shared instead of fronting the burden of having all those things on an individual’s startup.

Those co-working spaces put like-minded business people in the same room and allows for that exchange of ideas and help sharing.

“The peers and the near peers, the entrepreneur who is one step ahead of you, is the most valuable person,” Heath said.

Indiana and northeast Indiana already have the business startup resources and experts available and is already competitive in the amount of assistance it can provide to new business owners, Heath said. Further deepening those connections are likely to pay dividends, too.

And, lastly, simply celebrating the success stories can be a way to inspire the next person to take their idea from their brain to paper to practice.

“What’s celebrated is emulated. If you can see the entrepreneurs around you in your backyard who are launching companies … that’s how you get that flywheel of momentum going,” she said.

So, with all that in mind, Be Noble is going to make entrepreneurship its new focus, Gatman said.

Not only will Noble County continue to build its support network, building a database of people who are able and willing to assist entrepreneurs, Gatman is hopeful to spur development of co-working spaces across the county.

Ideally, Gatman said, the county would have multiple co-working locations located in downtowns. One in downtown Kendallville. One in downtown Ligonier. One in downtown Albion.

A new entrepreneur could sign up and get access to all of them like a subscription service, allowing them to be mobile and flexible with not only their work hours — many entrepreneurs have a day job and then work on their dream in the after hours — but also flexible with their work location as needed.

Gatman is also hopeful that Noble County’s small businesses would continue to lean on one another, building net of local businesses doing business with other local businesses, which will strengthen and entrench those local firms and set a foundation for further growth.

And then, for those companies that survive their initial year and maybe are making do with a handful of workers, what do they need to take the next step? That’s where connecting that small firm to the right people can help them launch up to the next level, whether they need help starting an e-commerce side or scaling up their manufacturing process to build capacity, becomes critical, Gatman said.

In closing, Gatman said he’s hopeful that, like last year, him laying the road map will help get all of the right people in line to make it so.

The robotics lab came together because a variety of organizations — Impact Institute, the Dekko Foundation, the Don Wood Foundation, Freedom Academy, the Community Learning Center, Northeast Indiana Works and others — all banded together to see it happen.

Now, he’s hopeful that entrepreneur ship will garner that same kind of enthusiasm and collaboration.

“Seventy percent of our businesses in this county area very small,” Gatman said. “Supporting our small biz is an opportunity for us to do some really good things.”
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