GREENFIELD — Brushing a tear from his eye, Skip Kuker told the crowd he just wanted to be honest with them. They were all his colleagues, who so easily, so seamlessly, became his friends.
Together in 2016, they brought more than 870 new jobs to Hancock County and more than $930 million dollars in property investments by incoming businesses. More than 600 acres of land around the county is now primed and ready for developers to move in and start constructing. There were great, important things for the Hancock Economic Development Council to celebrate, and there is so much for its members to look forward to in the future, said Kuker, the executive director of the organization.
Looking back on the achievements of the last year — and pondering what the future might hold — became emotional for Kuker at the annual economic development council meeting, held Wednesday at the Greenfield Banking Co.’s headquarters on State Street.
The gathering is typically a time for members to mingle, discuss the years’ achievements, select new officers and outline plans for the future.
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But during Wednesday’s gathering, members also took a few minutes to honor their executive director’s dedication to the community.
Kuker was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer in the fall of 2013, a little more than a year after he’d been appointed executive director of the economic development council. But even in the face of what doctors soon labeled a terminable illness, Kuker never slowed down. He kept courting companies to bring their businesses to Hancock County, all while inspiring those he works closest with to never give up hope.
To show their appreciation for his hard work and dedication to the county, members honored Kuker’s legacy and offered his family some financial support with a check for more than $11,000 to help cover the cost of his cancer treatments.
Additionally, they announced the creation of The Nolan “Skip” Kuker Award for Community Enrichment, a scholarship fund that will gift $1,000 annually to a county high school student who shows deep community involvement and leadership skills.
The scholarship is the latest recognition Kuker has received in recent months that celebrates his efforts to better Hancock County and central Indiana: the Indiana Economic Development Association recently presented Kuker with its excellence in leadership award at the end of 2016; and the Fortville McCordsville Chamber of Commerce created a leadership award in his name that will be given to annually to a community member who shows Kuker’s passion for economic development.
Fighting back emotion Wednesday, Kuker told the crowd how thankful he’s been to serve Hancock County and work alongside everyone gathered there that day.
“Today, I feel I am the luckiest man on earth,” he said. “Every day, I’m able to wake up, see my family and go to work for this great community.”
Economic development council members said Kuker’s aggressive leadership style and his dedication to moving the county forward helped Hancock County advance in 2016. But bettering the community is a team effort, one they all should take pride in, he said.
Steve Long, who serves as the president of the council and CEO of Hancock Regional Hospital, told members Wednesday that Hancock County has the most silver-certified shovel-ready land in the state of Indiana.
The certification is awarded by the state’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs and makes land parcels more attractive to businesses looking to buy and move into Hancock County. Now, with 600 acres of shovel-ready land available, the county is poised to see great growth in the years to come, Long said.
Both Long and local business owner Chris Baggot, who served as the annual meeting’s keynote speaker, noted that increasing housing options should be at the forefront of the council’s work in the future.
During his address, Baggot said the county needs to do more to keep employees of its largest business, like Elanco, Covance and Hancock Regional Hospital, to purchase homes in Greenfield and surrounding areas rather than moving to communities like Fishers or Carmel.
Jokingly, he suggested an advertising campaign, even as a last resort.
“I’ve always said we should put signs along the highway, along (Interstate 465 in Indianapolis) that say, ‘If you lived in Greenfield, you would have been home 45 minutes ago.’”