Sterigenics’ building

Sterigenics’ building, formerly Iotron, was one of the projects the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation helped promote.

COLUMBIA CITY — “The Whitley County Economic Development Corporation strives to be the single point of contact for those businesses we want to attract and retain,” EDC President Dale Buuck said.

This mission speaks to the organization’s programs and efforts to support businesses large and small in all corners of the community, even through the trials and changes that COVID-19 brought.

The pandemic made for an interesting year for all organizations, but this goal of providing information and support never wavered for the EDC and Buuck, who began with the organization in April of 2020.

One of the challenges faced with the virus was its ever-changing nature as well as the different pieces of information coming out about it.

“There wasn’t much we could do at first. There was no grant right away and we were getting lots of calls,” commented Buuck. “There was so much information coming out, and for the average business person, they just wanted help.”

EDC Marketing Director Kennedy St. George stepped in, sending out links and information on where to find help to various business owners, and help took different forms as the effects of COVID impacted businesses in the community differently.

For some manufacturers, Buuck said protocols needed to be established in order to create work environments that would allow them to continue production. For other businesses that were deemed non-essential, help needed to come through financial assistance.

Buuck said that still other businesses throughout the year saw significant gains. Like Chromasource, which, with more people at home, saw more of its color strips and products being used. The same could be said for Sailrite, whose sales of sewing machines were growing. Or American Landmaster, which Buuck said reported record sales during COVID as more families sought recreational tools and activities at home.

What these businesses all had in common was the need to stay up to date on available information and resources, and it was the work of the EDC to meet each business where they were to help them meet their needs.

These efforts were supported with the development of a grant through the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, or OCRA. This program offers small businesses, defined as those with 100 employees or fewer, funding for three years with a 2% interest rate and the chance to defer interest or have it made forgivable. Buuck said the OCRA grant was made possible to the county because of its established Revolving Loan Fund program.

This provides low-interest loans to individuals and small businesses in an effort to not only create more jobs in the community, but support investments.

St. George said these programs remain available to businesses. Those interested can contact the EDC to learn more and apply.

Buuck said the EDC has also tried to make businesses aware of any other loans or grants provided by the state.

“We at the EDC tend to see those and we make sure we let everyone know about them,” Buuck said.

But COVID isn’t the only news to come out of 2020, with plenty of highlights throughout the county.

Sterigenics, formerly Iotron Industries, broke ground in May on a large facility expansion project. Ohki Alley in downtown Columbia City was completed, offering a new space for residents to enjoy. It is efforts like these the EDC supports as the organization works closely with other groups to attract and retain businesses and people to the area.

Buuck highlighted the business parks in Columbia City, which are almost full. These are great success stories Buuck said, adding that he still sees plenty of interest for businesses who want to move into Whitley County.

And this will fuel one of the key projects for the EDC in the coming years as it seeks to find new industrial sites to attract projects and business expansion plans. This will also mean the EDC will continue to advocate for adding housing opportunities.

“We will do our part for workforce development and housing, providing places for our workforce to live and fill these open jobs,” said Buuck.

“We just want to be a support in all these endeavors,” added St. George.

The EDC will also continue to play a role in the regional coalition to advocate for a safe and appropriate solution for U.S. 30, an infrastructure priority for northeast Indiana.

The EDC will continue to offer Leadership Whitley County, which is now in its 20th year. St. George said it started as a grant project that would have run for two years and has been a part of different organizations in the past. It became part of the EDC in 2016 with its continued focus on fostering leadership principles.

“It teaches how to be a better servant leader and putting those principles to work through a crash course (September through March),” said St. George. “It’s held throughout the county and is open to employees of Whitley County (even if you live outside the county). There will be 400 alumni after the current class passes.”

“The best win is when it gets more people engaged in the community,” added Buuck, who highlighted that those who graduate from the program often go on to serve in other non-profit and organizational boards.

And, of course, the Whitley County EDC will continue to advocate and be a support for all businesses in the community, including those in South Whitley, Larwill and Churubusco.

“There’s a lot happening here and we want them (each area of the county) to be highlighted for the great things they are doing,” he said.

The EDC continues to provide services, some free, but all to support businesses large and small in the community.

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