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New economic development director happy to be fielding inquiries

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GREENFIELD — It’s hard to say whether the uptick in local jobs prospects is a sign of a strengthening economy or a direct result of the Hancock Economic Development Council’s new leadership. Either way, Skip Kuker is staying very busy.

Kuker took over the top spot at HEDC three months ago, and with it the responsibility of attracting new business to the county and growing those that are already here.

So far, he’s well on his way.

Since March, two existing companies – Elanco and Genesis Plastics Welding – have made announcements for tentative expansions that would result in as many as 250 new jobs.

Kuker will be the first to say that many of the projects already in the works were started by his predecessor, Dennis Maloy. Maloy left the position in January to take a job in Bloomington.

Since he started March 6, though, Kuker has received about 60 requests for information.

That’s a definite increase from the recent past, said HEDC’s administrative assistant Connie Schmidt, who also worked under Maloy.

“It appears to me that what is happening right now would have happened regardless; it is just showing a change in things to come,” Schmidt said. “It sure is a really busy time for us.”

Of those 60 requests, Kuker said he has responded to half – the total of which holds the potential for more than 5,000 jobs in industrial, commercial and retail sectors.

The half that Kuker didn’t respond to were looking for something Greenfield couldn’t offer – a natural resource, rail access or a mega-building: an existing facility of 500,000 square feet or more.

Of course, even the vast majority of those prospects that Kuker has responded to will not locate in Hancock County. Some will go elsewhere, some will be delayed for months or years and others will never develop at all.

But Kuker said there are 10 projects for which Hancock County is on the short list, where company representatives have been to the county to meet, discuss and look at site possibilities.

Another 10 are still actively considering Hancock County, but are not as far along.

How many of these projects will actually come to fruition is hard to say, but Kuker feels confident in at least two or three right now, and more requests are coming in each day.

“There are exciting things coming up,” Kuker said, “but there’s no guarantee.”

The economic development world is one without guarantees and one with a lot of secrecy. One piece of bad information or slip of the tongue could kill a project or send a stock price plummeting.

But just knowing 20 companies are seeking information about the area is a good sign, said Brad DeReamer, the former Greenfield mayor who was active in economic development.

DeReamer said he has no personal knowledge of the deals Kuker is working on, but when he was in office from 2008 to 2011, companies weren’t coming forward looking for information. DeReamer said he had to go after them, and even then it was tough to secure one or two good projects.

“If he’s working on 20 deals and gets one to do, that’s great,” DeReamer said.

The economic development world is one of intense competition, between states, between counties and even neighboring cities and towns. It’s also one with a return on time investment. A developer could work on securing a project for years, only to lose out at the last minute.

The reasons that projects locate elsewhere can be anything from the tax rate to the size of sewer pipe running to a particular site – just a few of the pages worth of information companies request when looking for potential sites.

“It might all be for naught,” Kuker said of the hours, weeks and sometimes years that go into courting potential developers.

It can be frustrating, Kuker said, to lose a project for something that’s out of his hands, but it is part of the job. Even so, he thinks Hancock County is well-positioned for industrial and commercial growth over the next few years.

“There is so much good stuff going on here,” said Kuker, who came from Cass County where educational attainment was lower and unemployment was higher. “It’s really great to be down this way.”

Kuker said things like the county’s growing population, quality schools, relatively low tax rate and proximity to Indianapolis make it a tough competitor when fighting for new projects.

The county also has plenty of locations that could be attractive to businesses. Access 70, Progress Park and the Mt. Comfort business parks all get a lot of looks. Kuker said vacant lots near Interstate 70 and the airport have been getting attention lately. There has even been expansion in the county’s smaller towns like Fortville, McCordsville and Shirley.

All of those pieces together make for very exciting prospects. Kuker has his fingers crossed to land several of the pending deals by the end of the year.

“This is an economic developer’s dream job,” he said.

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