They came looking for answers. They came looking for encouragement. They came looking for help. They came to a crowded room in the Hodson Dining Complex on the Taylor University campus to spend six hours listening to other business people give speeches.

Not exactly a recipe for an excited day but members of the group Our Small Towns Thinking Regionally, a consortium of small business owners from Grant and nine surrounding counties, appeared to leave happy and better armed to secure their survival.

The organization, in conjunction with Indiana Main Street, seeks to break down traditional boundaries such as county lines and school districts and promote a spirit of cooperation so that communities in a region have a chance to thrive.

The Wednesday, June 22 event was organized and hosted by LaRea Slater, president of the Matthews Chamber of Commerce, but was the brainchild of Alexandria businessman, John Dockrey.

“This is a tremendous first step,” Dockrey said. “It has introduced us to each other’s communities. I don’t think these communities have communicated in the past the way this can open doors. Now where it goes from here is we have to pick the two or three topics as we did this morning and create a regional identity.”

Following Dockrey’s suggestion, visitations to member communities were scheduled once a month.

“Our first visit was in Alexandria, because it was John Dockrey’s idea, and Matthews and Upland one day, and Gas City in one day, and then Converse,” Slater said. “We can keep this going. In July we are going to meet in Wabash.”

The conference, moderated by Alan Miller, Director of University Relations at IWU, featured a panel of local entrepreneurs telling their stories of struggle and success. Presenters included ice sculpture artist Stephan Koch, an Eastbrook graduate who now has his business in Yorktown; Eric Cotton who has formed ECI Wind and Solar based in Matthews; Sharon Downhour, president/owner of Arborshire Enterprises in Blackford County; Jennifer Payne, co-owner of Payne’s Restaurant at Ind. 22 and I-69; and Deb Mann, one of four sisters who are new owners of Hodson’s Market in Converse.

Discovering what we know

Mann was accompanied to the conference by her sister and co-owner, Barb Kidd. The pair gained some perspective.

“It is exciting to see all these small towns come together and ask what can we do to help each other to bring vitality back to our communities,” Mann said.

“We are now aware of resources we can get to now that we weren’t aware of before, the web sites and the human resources,” Kidd said.

Susie Bruce, a director with the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), began the day soliciting ideas from participants.

“I am always amazed how resourceful people are and how creative they are,” Bruce said. “It has been my experience that people are their own best experts. If there is a way for me to help facilitate them to discover what they already know That’s what my job is.”

Having visited the area several times, Bruce is impressed with area leadership.

“I really applaud LaRea for having a vision,” she said. “She is a real champion. I have seen significant change in how rural communities act. They are expanding. They are moving. They are thinking differently. I see change, real systemic change, which is exciting for me.”

Featured speaker Scott Burgins, who has managed community projects across Indiana, discussed how traditional boundaries can be overcome. He has been involved in several consortium communities.

“We have worked on several downtown revitalization plans in the area,” Burgins said. “We have worked in Matthews, in Alexandria and are now working in Fairmount. I have a fair amount of experience of what is going on up here. (Cross-boundary cooperation) is something that could work. You have nice beautiful communities. As you drive in you can see a lot of energy. Guys like John Dockrey from Alexandria and LaRea from Matthews, people working together. This is something you can turn things around and bring in tourism. I have no doubt about that.”

Burgins did his area homework.

“I visited this area as a tourist long before I started to work here,” he said. “I went up and saw the World’s Biggest Paint Ball. I had a milkshake at Ivanhoe’s. I went to the spiritualist camp in Pendleton. Those are the things I like to do and that’s what got me interested in these communities. So even before i knew I would work for any of these cities, I was here as a tourist looking around.”

Burgins says the Wednesday meeting was a good start at working together.

“Any of these towns themselves may be too small to bring in huge amounts of people” he said. “But, if they pull together and create trails so that people can go from one town to another. That’s what they need to do and that’s what they started doing today.”

He suggests the Cardinal Greenway may be one focus.

“You ride these trails and you stop and eat lunch,” he said. “You ride by an antique store and you buy something there. That’s just the type of thing you want to happen. The Cardinal Greenway has great potential. They talked about it going to Matthews and Upland. That would be a great tourism asset.”

Getting practical

Another featured speaker, Joe Pearson, Executive Director of Mid-America Science Park and former state representative from Blackford County, says breaking down barriers won’t be easy.

“We all talk regionalism and we all talk regionally, but are we truly so,” Pearson said. “When we say if you build it where I am then I am regional. But when you ask me to support building it in your town, oh no. I have to have it here. Until we break through that and realize that our competition is global, we are not thinking regionally. We have to realize that if our neighbor gets something, then we truly gain by that. We don’t lose. We have to help our neighbors build their communities as much as we build our own. The adage ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is so true.”

So, where to from here?

“It needs to get practical,” Slater said. “Right now it is in the creative, brainstorming, wonderful idea stage. But a lot of these people are saying, like John Dockrey and Joe Pearson, we have to get practical. We need to get something at the end of that sidewalk paid for by OCRA. We know that there are a lot of people ready to help us get practical. John Dockrey is already there.”

Dockrey sees the need for an entrepreneurial workshop.

“That to me is the next step,” he said. “I would like to see two things come from it. First, I would like to create a board of entrepreneurs, current and dreamers, that will support people across community lines. If I go into my local community businesses, I am not an expert. I may be a customer, but they do not see me as an expert. But I have 25 years experience as an entrepreneur and I can go to Upland and they will listen to me. If we can cross those lines, this group coming to my community and advising and that group advising in your community to counsel existing businesses.

“As a member of the chamber of commerce in Alexandria, I have people call there all the time asking what else is there to do in the area. I didn’t know until we started doing these community visits. I have six children. I don’t drive to Matthews to see what is there. When we came to Matthews and Upland and I actually saw where they do the Covered Bridge Festival, now my family are going to go to that this year.”

In addition to business owners, town and school officials attended the conference. Oak Hill schools superintendent, Joel Martin, received an email invitation, checked his schedule and decided to attend. He is glad he did.

“Those who have taken the lead have done a good job,” Martin said. “They had a quality moderator in Alan Miller and experts in different areas available to talk. From my point of view as a school superintendent, it was beneficial to hear about the struggles and the issues that small business owners face as they try to get started and maintain in our communities. It can only be good that there is networking and collaboration going on for the nine counties involved.”
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