The Role that the EDC Plays in Elkhart County
Nov 30, 2020 12:00 PM
Chris Stager - Pres/CEO Econ Develop. Corporation
The Role that the EDC Plays in Elkhart County

Chris Stager President/CEO Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County

From the South Bend Tribune, By Marshall V. King Tribune Columnist May 20, 2019 

ELKHART — Chris Stager came back home and wants to make it bigger and better. That’s talking about home in the larger, community sense, not just the house in which he resides. From 2014 to 2017, Stager was vice president of business retention and expansion for the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County. He went to western Pennsylvania to work in the telecommunications field, but returned five months ago to become the interim president of the EDC.

There’s no active search process to fill the role with someone other than Stager. He had worked under Mark Dobson, whose last day on the job was Dec. 29. John Place, board president, said the process to remove the interim title is continuing.

After Dobson resigned Stager applied for the opening and the board asked him to return.

“It was a very good opportunity I had to explore,” Stager said.

He’s since filled his former job with Chris Hooley, who was an agent with Berkshire Hathaway Realty and is co-owner of Hydraulic Ale Works just down the street from the EDC office. An EDC’s role is to spur the economy of a place. The old way of doing that is to woo an employer to open a business that wasn’t there before. That’s a bit like fishing. It’s possible to land the big one and some small ones, but rarely turns out as well as you hope. Even when it does happen, what gets landed isn’t always what was promised. The Amazon HQ2 deal in New York City and Foxconn deal in Wisconsin are both case studies in how communities are asked to promise the moon and may get very little in return.

The EDC for many years has worked with existing companies to help them expand or grow as well. Last year, those numbers dipped, but will rebound to 200 to 250 companies this year, Stager said. The EDC will help assess needs and how to meet them. He’s growing training programs, using his experience for Frontier to help guide the county’s fiber initiatives. The EDC was involved in a record $150 million in projects last year and grew workers with the Elkhart County Works website and programs for veterans and ex-offenders, he said.

Diversifying the economy is one of the large, ongoing tasks for the EDC. The percentage of jobs in Elkhart County that are manufacturing is one of the highest in the United States and many of those are tied to the recreational vehicle industry. Since the last downturn a decade ago, have we diversified?

“That’s a challenging question,” Stager said. “We certainly produce other products and serve other markets. Whether it’s enough to counter a downturn in the RV industry? We’ve improved but we still have some work to do.”

In Elkhart County, $407,000, or nearly half the EDC’s annual $900,000 budget, is funded by public sources such as county and city contributions, Stager said. Because of that, the work it does should be on behalf of the county’s residents, but Stager also sees the county as part of a larger region that can offer resources and aid growth.

On a trip to Greenville, S.C., put together by Horizon Education Alliance, he saw how industry and education came together across a wider geographic area to become an innovation hub for the auto industry.

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