Space savers: once empty, many industrial buildings are now filled


Pulling together has helped Huntington County attract enough new industry to refill most of the industrial space that was emptied there by the recession.


That is how Mark Wickersham, executive director of Huntington County United Economic Development Corp., said the county has been able to redevelop 94 percent of the industrial space that was vacant when he came on board in March 2008.


“There were a number of factors that led to the vacancies in the first place and a number of factors that led to the opportunities to reutilize those spaces,” Wickersham said.


“Among the things that have helped us regroup … has simply been a recognition among all of our elected officials that economic development is a collaborative team sport.”


Huntington County had 2,207,000 square feet of industrial space to fill in March 2008, and within five years, 2,075,000 square feet of it has been reoccupied.


That has come about partly because in Huntington County, “our local officials want to be your allies, not your adversaries,” Wickersham said.


“As companies are looking for opportunities and places to grow and develop, that’s very important to them to know the government is on their side, in essence,” he said.


The redevelopment of industrial space has helped stabilize city and county revenue streams by generating about $775,000 in additional tax revenue each year that goes to local governments, he said.


The importance of that is understood among public-sector employees in the county at all levels, Wickersham said.


“Whether it’s the city employee who is responsible for collecting the trash or the person in charge of mowing the lawn at the park or the person in charge of making sure the potholes are filled, everyone has figured out that they have a role to play in making the county competitive in economic-development activity and making the county an attractive place to live and work.


“Sometimes you’d be amazed at how simple, fundamental concepts become the definition of success or failure for a community,” he said.


The EDC’s contribution to the industrial-space redevelopment has included improving its marketing and focusing more on the specifics of economic development.


The organization was developing a new strategic plan and a new organizational plan when Wickersham was hired to lead it.


“We changed the size of our board and did a little more fundraising to get some more resources,” he said. “We did a lot of things differently as an agency, but it isn’t clear which of those things impacted the results.”


Much of the vacant industrial space was in a number of large buildings that have been filled.


In August 2009, Continental Structural Plastics committed to invest more than $9 million to establish a plant that would employ up to 350 in a facility of more than 200,000 square feet previously occupied by Meridian Automotive Systems.


The plant in the Riverfork Industrial Park is the sole source of 90 percent of the exterior body panels on General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. A 2010 expansion increased the CSP investment there to $18 million.


“When you’re looking at the Chevy Corvette, there’s an emotional reaction that says, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful vehicle.’ And whatever you saw that produced that reaction was made in Huntington,” Wickersham said.


“The quality that has to be in that vehicle is immeasurable. The consumer that buys that Stingray is an incredibly detail-minded and demanding consumer, and that product has to be perfect every time,” he said.


“And the labor force at CSP in Huntington County is the best in the world at making the panels for that product.”


Wickersham said Huntington County always has had a solid work force capable of producing that kind of quality.


Workers employed by Onward Manufacturing Co. in the Erie Industrial Park in Huntington make a gas barbecue grill, which was rated the best in its product category last summer by Consumer Reports magazine.


Onward committed in October 2009 to create 300 jobs at the 1000 E. Market St. plant in Huntington previously occupied by CMF Corp.


The Canadian company renamed its first U.S. facility Huntington Forge, with plans to introduce a new product line from the 400,000-square-foot plant. It invested $12 million in the plant.


In 2011, 75,000 square feet of space previously occupied by a former Gotec Plus USA facility on Riverfork Drive in Huntington was occupied by Huntington Aluminum, a company started by a local entrepreneur.


The $2.5-million project would employ about 30 workers melting down scrap aluminum and forming it into ingots for sale in the metal markets.


Early this year, Muncie-based DIY Group announced plans to buy and equip a 408,000-square-foot building on Riverfork Drive previously used as a Stride Rite warehouse.


The $3.2-million project was undertaken to establish distribution out of the facility for Weaver Popcorn Co. products. DIY hired 10 workers and “no incentives of any kind were needed,” Wickersham said.


“They like the building, they like the location and it works logistically for them, and they are very excited about the opportunity and we’re delighted to welcome them to Huntington.”


The county has seen its unemployment rate come down as jobs have been created by industrial-space redevelopment and other important economic development projects — such as the attraction of a $21-million investment by Helena Chemical Co. to build a fertilizer plant at Park 24 in Huntington.


The county’s unemployment peaked at 14.3 percent in June 2009 and had declined to 9.4 percent in January, according to Indiana Department of Workforce Development.


“When I started and we had all this vacant square footage, we were running about 2 percentage points ahead of the statewide (unemployment) average,” Wickersham said.