Sunday, November 21, 2010

Economic Development Coalition sees deals multiplying in region

By Carol Wersich
Evansville Courier & Press
Posted November 21, 2010 at 11:59 p.m

A year ago in November, the Economic Development Coalition of Southwestern Indiana saw no activity by potential companies wanting to expand operations or establish roots in Evansville or the Tri-State.

"It was dead," said Greg Wathen, the coalition's president and chief executive officer.

Then, by the end of December, activity began to happen and it has continued picking up.

"Today, the level includes 23 potential projects, which is pretty phenomenal for us. ... It's incredibly strong," said Wathen.

"The outlook for the coming year is good. Our activity typically is a window to what might occur with the economy in general in the future."

However, it's uncertain whether all, some or none of the 23 companies will decide to expand or locate in Vanderburgh, Gibson, Posey and Warrick counties — areas covered by the coalition.

"Because the activity has increased to this level, we think within the next six to 12 months that will translate into new investment being made here," Wathen said.

"If all 23 projects materialized, it could amount to more than a $2 billion investment and more than 2,500 new jobs."

Wathen said he realizes the region probably won't attract 100 percent of them, but the area's track record for competition puts it in a good position to attract some.

"We know that we have a few projects where companies already have secured financing. We're basically waiting on them to decide where they want to locate or expand."

Wathen said the economy has amplified the amount of competition today. Now, 100 percent of the potential projects are competitive, whereas it used to be about 60 percent, he said.

"I can't fault any company out there for forcing communities to compete. All states are different.

"Sometimes it's more difficult with one state over another. Some states don't tax personal property. Other states have very significant utility taxes or workers' compensation taxes that are very high. Rarely is it 'apples to apples,'" he said.

European and Asian companies are getting into the competition because of the value of the U.S. dollar, according to Wathen.

The Economic Development Coalition of Southwestern Indiana was formed in late 2006.

By early 2007, Wathen and the late Rick Borries of AT&T were busy negotiating to bring the coalition's first major project, the AT&T Wireless Customer Service Call Center, to Evansville.

A short while later, the center opened in a revamped former Sam's Club facility on Vogel Road.

New investment

From 2007 through today, the coalition has helped secure $346 million in new investment for existing and new companies, such as the AT&T center, Berry Plastics, Mead Johnson, Toyota Boshoku and Vuteq, said Michelle Hudson, coalition co-chairwoman, during the organization's annual board meeting Friday.

"From headquarters and customer service centers to research and development operations, these companies represent not only new investment but, more importantly, 1,780 new jobs as well," said Wathen.

In the past three years, the coalition has secured $47 million in grants for projects such as expanding water and sewer systems, building community centers and making levee improvements.

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