Interview with Kevin Brinegar, President and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce

By: Ideas in Motion Media Last Updated: October 2, 2013

How does the Indiana Chamber of Commerce view Northwest Indiana?

kevin-brinegar-video-rotKB: The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is a statewide business advocacy organization. We have members in all 92 counties, including all the counties in Northwest Indiana. We have members and board members in this part of the state. This area is very important to Indiana's economy, and the vitality of the state.

There are, from our view, a number of assets in terms of significant infrastructure, transportation infrastructure, and industrial infrastructure. You've got this wonderful resource of the Lake Michigan lakeshore, so you've got attractiveness in terms of boating, leisure, and outdoor activities as well the proximity to Chicago for jobs and business activities that's going across the state line. Northwest Indiana is always sitting in a state that is in a much better position in terms of our business climate, in terms of state finances, stability, and tax structure.

Indiana has greatly and dramatically improved its business climate over the last 12 years. That makes it easier for Northwest Indiana to compete with surrounding states and other regions of the country in terms of our tax climate, in terms of our labor climate, and in terms of our regulatory climate. There are regulatory burdens from things like environmental management. We view Northwest Indiana as much a more important area and region of the state as anywhere else in Indiana.

What are your thoughts on recent developments like the Illiana Expressway, Gary Airport, Lakefront Development, and the RDA?

KB: We've supported all of those projects and the legislation in the instances it was needed to bring those to fruition. The RDA was an important piece of legislation to begin to get the area to think regionally and to have a mechanism. To do that, it had some funding behind it, and of course this was a spin off the "Major Moves" legislation.

The Illiana Expressway, we also thought, is extremely important. It will help with traffic congestion. It will create new economic development opportunities that as businesses build out around the Illiana Expressway that sort of bypassed around Northwest Indiana and Chicago for the traffic going through traffic into Wisconsin, Southwest to Illinois and Missouri, or heading the other direction going toward Michigan or Ohio.

The Gary Airport is an important asset given its close proximity to Chicago given the location and the infrastructure that is there, and will be there and enhance, if and when, the runway is extended.

What kind of positive opportunities do you see coming out of Gary in the future?

KB: I am encouraged. I have been watching and admiring the Mayor [Karen Freeman-Wilson] since she took office, and have been impressed with the approach and sort of the candor with which she is addressing the problems and communicating to the people of Gary. I do think this is an opportunity for revitalization effort that has perhaps a different outcome than has been the case over the last 20 or 30 years.

Gary is strategically located in Northwest Indiana and relative to Chicago, and there's a lot of assets there. It would certainly be our hope that we could leverage that. We're interested and willing to assist in anything in the public policy side of things.

I hope to in the distant future to reach out and sit down with the mayor and explore her vision for the area, and see where there could be some interconnections that the Indiana Chamber of Commerce can help.

What leads Indianapolis to be successful fostering new tech and media businesses, and how can Northwest Indiana model that going forward?

KB: I think that one thing that I would point to first and foremost is visionary leaders from different industries, not just the technology sector. There leaders are willing to come together and work together to develop and implement a vision for Indianapolis and central Indiana.

By contrast, things in Northwest Indiana traditionally are a bit more fragmented, and its been harder to pull folks together and get things rolling in the same direction. I see instances and evidence that are beginning to happen, and the RDA is a big catalyst to the Northwest Indiana forum. They do a good job as well. Some of the chambers have begun to emerge and, byproduct of that, (the area) became more regional. There's not one particular city or town or county that pertains to that.

How has the region around Indianapolis embraced innovation?

KB: I think there are very outstanding entrepreneurs who have ideas and vision who worked on those, and a supportive environment, culture and people that were willing to look beyond just their business and their activities to be willing to spend some time, energy and share some of their talent for the better good of the region and area, and develop things like training seminars, lectures, and things where people can come together to learn and improve as well as share ideas.

What kind of methods does the Chamber use to communicate with the people of Indiana?

KB: It is very challenging. I have a very talented communication staff. Let me stress, it is important to us because we have expanded our role and responsibility in the state of Indiana. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has been in existence for 92 years, has evolved into more than just a business organization that cares about businesses, their success and profitability. We have with our new strategic plan that was adopted a few years ago, and our long term economic development action plan for Indiana, called the Indiana Vision 2025, we have taken it upon ourselves to take responsibility for Indiana's economic future.

We did that because we came to realize that elected officials come and go. Many people feel like Mitch Daniels was an outstanding governor, but the fact of the matter was that he was term limited. Other elected officials are term limited, they come and go onto higher things, or they get defeated. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is the only statewide organization that's here for the long hull. We have decided take upon and accept that responsibility for Indiana's economic future. With doing that, we have taken on responsibility, a focus, and a vision that is beyond just business entities.

If you look at our revised mission statement, which was adopted about three years ago, it talks about the prosperity of the people in Indiana and their enterprises. That's why we care about K-12 education, workforce training, and focus on things that will improve our per person capita income in Hoosiers in all corners in the state and all areas of the state. In order to do that, we have determined and feel that it takes being able to reach out to people through different mediums.

We have a bi-monthly magazine, that has won 63 national and state awards, that drills down into different topics. We do electronic newsletters on topics to keep our members informed to what's going on in the state house during that legislative session, study commities in the summer, in congress, and our congression delegation. We have a daily component of Gerry Dick's "Inside Indiana Business" e-newsletter that talks about different topics. It also makes information available, and promotes our training opportunities because, in addition to our advocacy and public policy pursuits, the Chamber is very much about helping employers train employees, understand laws and regulations, getting in compliance and staying in compliance.

We do 50 training and regulatory complience seminars a year. We put out a lot of information through these different communication mediums to inform folks about that and how they can come to a training or purchase a publication. We take the regulatory complience and laws, and turn them into plain English. We make those as a reference guide that you can pull off a shelf and make an answer to a question without have to ask someone else. This is important to small and medium sized businesses.

You have to slice this in different ways because this day in age people recieve their information in different froms, such as newspapers, blogs, and twitter feeds. This means we need to be communicating in all of these ways as a two way mechanism.

How do you promote Indiana to businesses that might be looking to move here? What about Indiana attracting new businesses?

KB: We promote and shout out that we have achieved one of the very best business climates in the country. Business climates include tax burden availability of skilled workers, what's the regulatory environment, and the legal environment, and product liability.

We don't have mountains and oceans, so the only thing that comes close to that is Lake Michigan. I'm sure the folks up here promote that. We also promote a lifestyle. Indiana tends not to be congested as other parts of the country. It tends to be safer and a better place to raise children than in an expensive apartment for a small space. We have worked hard to improve our business climate and rankings through our public policy efforts.

In the last 12 years have gone from about 30th, the lower half of the 50 states, to this summer with rankings that showed Indiana was 5th best business climate in the United States. Indiana is also number one in the midwest, and also the only state in the Midwest on the top ten list.

If you're thinking about coming to the Midwest, Indiana is the place to come. There are indications that some parts of Illinois could very will be the next Detroit and have to declare bankruptcy. We don't have those problems in Indiana. For businesses thinking about coming to Indiana, that translates that their tax climate is going to be stable.

What are some challenges Indiana will need to tackle in the future?

KB: We've addressed that in a long term economic development action plan, the Indiana Vision 2025. If any of the viewers want to read that it's only 33 pages. You can read it or download it at http://www.indianachamber.com. That plan focuses on four key goal areas, or what we call "drivers"; oustanding talent, superior infrustructure, dynamic business climate, and a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship furthering that. Of those four drivers we believe that we will continue to work on all of those and make improvements, but number one is the outstanding talent.

We are in an intensely, globally competitive, knowledge-based economy. Strong backs are not necessarily enough to earn a living wage and have a decent lifestyle anymore. It takes a strong mind, and we have some vulnerabilities there. We beleive, at the Indiana Chamber, that it is not acceptable in the 21st century for Indiana to continue to have a 25 to 30 percent high school dropout rate because dropping out of high school in the 21st century is the equivilant of giving yourself an economic death sentence. We've got to address that as best we can.

We think one of the ways to address that is a legislation that we supported purposed last session to have publically funded pre-school for low-income disadvantaged families so that we can close the preperation gap between kids that show up in kindergarten or the first grade and they spent the last three years sitting on Grandma's couch watching the Price is Right versus kids that have spent the last three years in a pre-school experience that know their numbers, letters, sit in their seat, or raise their hand. These kids are ready, and the kids that are not ready pre-school and kindergarten tend to be reading by the third grade, are falling behind in middle school, and dropping out in high school.

We need every single citizen in this state to come as close to meeting their maximum potential as possible. That comes in the K-12 area, our adult workforce training, getting more activity out of higher learning institutions, get graduation rates up, and get time to completion down. It's not, in our view, acceptable to have students in a four year institution have them only producing 30 or 40 graduation rates not only in four years, but also in six years. That's why we think the legislation we passed this year, the Indiana Career Council, which is going to look at all the different programs from pre-K all the way to workforce training and see where these programs interact and how to get the best return on investment.

There's always going to be limited resources. We can't just have unlimited funds to throw at our skills and training problems, so we need to make sure that we are using those as wisely as possible. I think it's pretty well acknowledged that we're not doing that currently, so we need to get a "bigger bang for our buck," so to speak, for all the state and federal money that goes into education and workforce training.

Local resources like the Porter County Career & Tech Center help provide hands-on work skills for students. How can businesses help education targeted at workforce development?

KB: I think the business helps education by opening lines of communication. One of the other important pieces of legislation that has passed earlier this year was the Regional Works Councils, which are going to be setup on a regional basis to facilitate communication between employers and high school officials to share information about what skills are needed, what jobs are available, and what kids need to be able to start doing in high school to ultimately have the skills to take and succeed in those jobs.

We've gotten a little bit away from vocational and technical training because of the mindset that everyone has to go to college and get a four year degree. Not everyone is meant to do that. There are more jobs that are demanding in the technical skills with using technology and computers. Those skills can be accomplished in a two year associate degree or a technical certificate. In many cases, these can pay a higher salary than what you can achieve certain four year degrees.

We need to open those opportunities up. Many kids have aptitude for those kinds of jobs and positions, but they many not know they exist. The Work's Councils will help foster that communication.

The other thing is that we believe that an underutilized asset is all the money the state spends on middle school and high school guidance counselors. We would like to see more communication and collaboration between guidance counselors and employees in particular areas of the state so they know what's available and do a better job of career advising at the high school level rather than to focus on just counseling and focusing on their scheduling. We've got a study in the works on that topic that is being pursued by the Indiana Chamber Foundation.

Do you have any final thoughts on the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Northwest Indiana?

KB: We have a state that is better positioned to grow jobs and raise families than nearly any other state in the country. We ought to be proud of that. Northwest Indiana is a highly valued region of our state that contributes to Indiana's overall economic engine , the vitality of our state, and opportunities that lie ahead of the people of Indiana.