The potential loss of the lion’s share of the 700 jobs at United Technologies Electronic Controls in 2017 and 2018 has overshadowed what otherwise has been several successful years in terms of economic development in Huntington County.
The county received 14 announcements involving industrial expansions in 2015, with nearly $25 million in investment pledged, said Mark Wickersham, executive director of Huntington County Economic Development. That was on top of 15 announcements in 2014 – making Huntington second only to Allen County in the number of projects in the northeast Indiana region that year.
The growth at Novae Corp., which is headquartered in Markle, pushed it up to fifth on the list of the county’s top manufacturing employers, with 350 workers. Novae is the third largest utility trailer manufacturer in the United States and been named to Inc. magazine’s list of the fastest growing privately held companies in America for 10 consecutive years.
Onward Manufacturing Co., which makes gas grills and grill accessories, also has about 350 employees currently and immediate openings for 100 people. Gerdau Steel is ahead of the hiring pace it expected when it applied for a tax abatement last year, and Continental Structural Plastics, with 400 workers, is considering an expansion, Wickersham said.
The Continental expansion is one of three HCED is close to being able to announce, “but we’re not quite there yet,” Wickersham said. The second is a potential expansion by Huntington Aluminum; and the third is by an as-yet unnamed company looking at a regional distribution center.
“There’s more good news coming on the industrial front,” Wickersham said.
The county has seen about 30 new retail and service-oriented businesses – everything from bookstores, bakeries, consignment shops and flower shops – open over the last two years, said Steve Kimmel, executive director of the Huntington County Chamber of Commerce. Some are in Roanoke or Warren or Markle; many are in downtown Huntington.
About three years ago, Adam and Rebecca Hanson opened Antiqology in downtown Huntington, at 401 N. Jefferson St. They have seen perhaps 10 more downtown shops, salons and restaurants open since then, Rebecca Hanson said.
Antiqology combines sales of antiques and collectibles with offerings of ice cream, bottled craft sodas and draft sodas. “We just kind of thought they went together,” she said.
Unusual, artsy retailers like Antiqology are exactly the type of business the city would like to bring in to create a downtown shopping district where visitors to the area can spend time wandering from one store to the next, Kimmell said.
“Typically, what we really need in the downtown area to make it vibrant is something that’s going to have unique gift items … gifts you can’t find in a Walmart,” he said.
The Hansons think there is a lot of potential for doing cross promotions with other downtown retailers; they sell a custom ice cream based on pies served at nearby Nick’s Kitchen, for example.
“Instead of competing with each other, why not complement each other?” Rebecca Hanson said. “When we work together, we all win.”
Turn the Page Books & More, which opened just a month ago at 445 N. Jefferson St., is one of the newer retailers in downtown Huntington. The other businesses there have all been very supportive, said Renee Platt, who owns the shop with fiance Rex Frederick.
“Everyone wants us to succeed,” she said.
Frederick owns the building, and Platt loves books, so a used bookstore was a natural, low-key, low-tech business to try, Frederick said.
“I love the feel of a book in my hand, and I think that there are other people like me,” Platt added.
The also sells scarves, jewelry, incense, stuffed animals and coffee mugs, among other items.
With new construction and old buildings that have been repurposed, the city of Huntington now has about 75 senior citizens apartments downtown. Kimmel would like to have a deli, a small grocery and a pharmacy downtown to serve them – although he admits that the latter two might not be easy to get.
The Huntington Chamber also is working with Huntington University and Duke Energy on a project to bring students downtown for some classes. That would, in turn, open the door to repurposing other buildings for apartments for them.
The university project is one of Huntington’s goals for funding through the state’s Regional Cities program. Rehabbing the three historic buildings, known as the I.O.O.F.-United Brethren block, is also part of its Regional Cities wish list.
The adjoining buildings were saved from the wrecking ball two years ago by Indiana Landmarks, which proposed they be redeveloped with the first floors for retail and the upper floors for apartments.
Restoring the exterior of the long vacant buildings would take more than $500,000; the cost to redo the interiors would depend on how they were used, an engineering study commissioned by the preservation group estimated last year.
“I know that’s a big dream to have, but you have to dream big if you want to succeed and go on to the next level,” Kimmel said.
The buildings are part of the Huntington Courthouse Square district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the works
There also may be a buyer in the wings for the 94,000-square-foot former Kmart on the Huntington bypass. The building has sat empty about two years, but Kimmel said he has heard of two potential offers for it, both of which would be for retail use.
Losing that anchor store hasn’t helped the other retailers in the high-visibility area, Kimmel acknowledged. An estimated 19,000 to 20,000 cars pass by the site each day, “so we want to get that filled up as quickly as possible.”
The former Bob Evans, which closed a year ago, has been razed by an owner who plans to build another restaurant on the site. There also is some interest in the former King’s Garden Chinese restaurant, which has been vacant about three years, Kimmel said.
“There’s a lot of activity brewing out there, but nothing has totally happened yet. I think you’re going to see some things happen shortly,” Kimmel said.
The community’s confidence level is fairly high, although the UTEC announcement “probably put people back on their heels a bit,” Kimmel said. But there are still people talking about starting new businesses and there are buildings available for them when they are ready.
“We just need to continue to do our due diligence, keep in touch with these people, make sure that whatever they need, the Chamber is there to help them out.”