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Officials baffled by job growth numbers

January 27, 2018 GMT

La PORTE COUNTY — Though local officials would rather not be toward the bottom of a recent list released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, they’re not losing much sleep over it, either.

The Bureau of Labor recently released statistics analyzing job growth in communities across the country. The report generated a bit of buzz nationally because of communities listed at the very top (Elkhart-Goshen) and near the very bottom (Michigan City-La Porte) that were separated by only an hour or so.

The statistics were an analysis of “nonfarm payroll employment … from November 2016 to November 2017 in 313 metropolitan areas.”

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In the Michigan City-La Porte region, the report indicated that the area had experienced a 3.6 percent decrease in employment, tied for second to last in the nation with Cleveland, Tennessee, and only behind Cape Girardeau, Missouri-Illinois.

Elkhart-Goshen reportedly experienced a 5.3 percent employment increase during that time period, tops in the nation. This number is largely attributed to growth in the RV industry.

“People say that numbers don’t lie,” said Clarence Hulse, Executive Director of the Michigan City Economic Development Corp., “but I’ll say that numbers don’t always tell the truth.”

Hulse said unemployment data can often be “sketchy,” because it only counts people who are actively looking for work. Also, Hulse questioned how much of the data used to form the statistics was first-hand field data, as opposed to using past data in an algorithm to make projections.

Hulse said the biggest category for job loss in the area was government jobs, in which education is lumped in. Hulse said the population in the area has been stagnant for some time and is also aging. So, with fewer people in the schools, there can be fewer jobs.

Conversely, Hulse said the local economy is booming in terms of construction jobs. Hulse also said that another positive sign for the local economy is that the housing market has been hot.

“There are lots of gaps in the data,” Hulse said. “National data is great for long-term projections, but to understand what’s happening in the local market, you have to talk to people working in local chambers or Economic Development Corporations.”

Bert Cook, Executive Director of the Greater La Porte Economic Development Corporation, mostly concurred with Hulse, and added that he sees good things happening in the area.

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“Both (Michigan City and La Porte) have exciting projects going on where they’re focusing on residential, recreational and industrial,” Cook said. “I’ve never seen La Porte as robust in terms of economic development as it is right now. We’re really moving and having a hard time keeping up with the demand. The (Bureau of Labor stats) don’t align with what we’re seeing.”

Cook also spoke, though, to differences in how economic development offices are going about their business, focusing more on placemaking and increasing the overall attractiveness of an area.

“I’ve been here 14 years and when I started, the mantra was, ‘Create good jobs and everything else will sort itself out,’” Cook said. “People looked for a job and then moved to that community.

“That dynamic is completely different now. People graduate, find out where they want to live and then find a job there.”

Cook said while, on one hand, the labor force might be shrinking, “nearly every employer is hiring. … When you look at it through a different set of glasses, you realize how important placemaking is to building a community.”

While economic development offices in the past might have focused solely or mostly on industrial parks, they now tend to look more at “investments in downtown and plazas, those quality of life offerings that are really important.

“If, 14 years ago, someone would have said they want the economic development office to help finance and create a plaza with a splash pad downtown, we would have laughed at that,” Cook said. “But we’re doing those things now.”

Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer was a little baffled by the stats, questioned their accuracy but then added that there have been positive signs in Michigan City.

“Any time you see investment in city funds, you want to see job growth,” Meer said. “In six years, there’s been more than a billion dollars in investment, both private and governmental. … So, (3.6 percent job loss), I really don’t see that when I look at Michigan City.”

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