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An organization created last year to advocate for and strongly support business and employment development and growth in this part of the state was profiled by its executive director, Matt Bell of Avilla, at a meeting in Decatur on Monday,
Bell, who guides the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana (RCNI), addressed some 30 people at a luncheon gathering at Woodcrest Retirement Community. He is a former member of the Indiana House of Representatives who left office to take the RCNI position.
Bell, a marketing expert who headed Noble County's literacy program for eight years, explained that, in less than a year and a half, RCNI has grown from 36 members to more than 80 and from a nine-member board of directors for a 10-county area to a 17-member board.
The idea behind RCNI, he said, was to have "one unified voice" for business growth in the area. RCNI provides access to state and national leaders, Bell said, and makes its voice heard despite "inundation" by other lobbyists and interest groups at the state legislature. The organization is backed by both of Indiana's U.S. senators, Dick Lugar and Dan Coats, and by the region's U.S. representative, Marlin Stutzman, according to Bell.
He noted that RCNI is an outgrowth of the Northeast Indiana Corporation Council and works with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.
"Join us as members and let us be that voice" at state and federal levels, Bell stated, adding that local Chambers of Commerce in the 10 counties are a prime connection between RCNI and local businesses. "That connection has to be maintained," he declared.
Bell listed three goals of the Regional Chamber:
• Having a competitive business climate to create wealth.
• Improving infrastructure to bring materials in and finished products out. He said that of the seven transportation districts in the state, northeastern Indiana ranks last in state funds, primarily because it is one of only two districts that do not touch the hub of counties around Indianapolis.
Among projects that RCNI backs is connecting I-69 to US 24 and converting US 27 south of Monroe and State Rd. 1 into "super-two" highways, with two interstate-type lanes for faster, safer movement of traffic, goods, people, etc.
• Developing "21st century talent." He asked "Do we have the right kind of demand-driven workforce to be successful?" Bell pointed out that northeastern Indiana has lagged 10 to 20 percent behind central Indiana in state education funding and that the Indiana-Purdue campus in Fort Wayne ranks 11th in funding among the 14 state-supported higher education sites in Indiana.
He said there must be a rise in graduate-level college degrees awarded in northeastern Indiana to match the levels around Indianapolis, Bloomington, and West Lafayette because, from 2002 to 2009, there was a 30 percent drop in this region in jobs requiring college degrees, while there was a nine percent increase in college-required jobs in the other three areas.
He also remarked that, regarding personal income in this corner of the state, it is 18 percent below the national average.