FAIR OAKS — The Economic Development Directors for both Jasper and Newton County got together and made a proposal for the Indiana Economic Development Association to come to Fair Oaks Farms for its annual conference, a first for the counties and northwest Indiana. Among the other proposals given, the association chose to come to Fair Oaks for their 2019 event, spending two days exploring the region on Sept. 12 and 13.

Jasper County Economic Development Director Stephen Eastridge and Newton County Economic Development Director Tim Myers were excited to have the conference come this way, and to be able to show the rest of the state what these two counties have to offer, as well as the northwest corner of the state.

Thursday morning, guests were given a tour of the two counties, including a stop at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands to see the bison. The group also toured Carpenter Creek Cellars in Remington, stopped in Rensselaer for lunch and toured the campus of St. Joseph’s College before returning to Fair Oaks Farms for a visit.

Michael McCall, chief strategy officer for the farms, welcomed the group at the start of their afternoon conference in the banquet hall at the Farmhouse Restaurant. Many of the attendees also stayed in the Fairfield Inn at Fair Oaks as well. He told the group that he has worked on the hotel, and many of the projects at the Farms. Opening soon will be a robotic dairy adventure to show visitors how cows are self-milked by visiting the robotic milking machine, which does all the work without human interaction.

He also talked about the recent opening of the orchard, where there are 6,000 apple trees in a variety that also includes a maze for visitors to explore.

McCall said they are currently working on the new Tri-Point Advanced Food Processing area, which will have its first business coming soon. He said the advantage of bringing food processing industry to this area is it is already a TIF district, all of which is located in Newton County.

Eastridge and Pulaski County Economic Development Director Nathan Origer gave a presentation on “cross county collaboration.” They explained how four directors from Newton, Jasper, Pulaski and Starke got together, taking a road trip to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to a conference, and on the trip, they got to know each other well. It was an experience they thought made their collaboration that much easier. They felt comfortable sharing information, something the counties aren’t always keen on doing as they compete for businesses.

Before Eastridge came to Jasper County, Origer said collaboration across the two counties didn’t happen. “It was painful for all its neighbors,” he said. “But Stephen has done a 540°, not just a turning it around 360°, but around and a half.”

Their presentation was entitled, “Cross-county Collaboration — South of 30.” They wanted to separate themselves from Lake, Porter and LaPorte Counties to distinguish their needs from those of the more rigid business environments of the areas north of the US Highway.

Origer said the areas south of US 30, and the Kankakee River, are “rusticated.” Life is a bit slower, he said. The communities are rural and agricultural. They wanted to “carve out a piece of the region” separate from the more urban neighbors. “We don’t think of ourselves as a region. We wanted to leave some of the rigidity of the region image. We have the same issues, quality of life issues with our partners. It’s more than just geography,” he said.

Eastridge said they are building a system to identify their partners for the right project without talking about who is in what county. “It’s something we and Newton County have done,” he said.

“We meet and share ideas,” Eastridge explained to the group. He said they’ve also brought in White and Benton Counties because they all have similar needs. “We’ve gone out and listened and learned what works with others and how it could work for us,” he said.

After the conference, Eastridge commented, “Overall, the IEDA Conference at Fair Oaks when very well. The final count of attendees was close to 83, so that means 83 economic development professionals throughout Indiana came to Jasper and Newton County to talk about economic development. I think that’s a huge win for our communities and for our position in the economic development conversation.

“Speaking with some of the attendees, so many people were impressed by what Fair Oaks had to offer, the many unique quality of life advantages we possess in our rural communities, and just how organized we are in our efforts. I heard a lot about how nice the mobile tour was, which took participants to Kankakee Sands, Natural Prairie’s Edge Dairy, Carpenter Creek Cellars, and Downtown Rensselaer.

“Ultimately, it was a great opportunity for Tim and I to showcase the quality of life in Jasper and Newton County, while talking about rural economic development issues. I would call that a win by many measures.”

Myers said, “The conference went great. Fair Oaks Farms worked perfectly for a venue like this. We hope to start this being a destination point for state conferences.”

He said with the hotels at SR 114 and I-65, plus the 99 rooms at the Fairfield Inn, this is a good location for conventions and conferences and it was good to get the visibility, with this and the OCRA conference held there in May.

“This is not only the first time the IEDA has held a conference in Newton County; it’s the first time a conference has been held with a rural-based theme.”

Previously, both directors had pointed out that most of Indiana’s counties are rural, and were proud to have the conference in a rural setting discussing issues the rural counties have in regards to economic development.