The message resounded throughout the evening: Kokomo is back.

Hundreds of Kokomo area business and governmental leaders filled the lower level of Havens Auditorium on Indiana University Kokomo’s campus Tuesday. On stage, public officials and managers from the city’s largest employers and fledgling enterprises heralded Kokomo’s economic successes over the past couple years.

Almost every one of the 10 people who walked on stage punctuated their speeches with messages stressing the importance of the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance. In between speakers, a projector screen showed video clips of small and emerging business owners telling their success stories and how the Alliance helped.

It was all part of the Alliance’s Great Connect, which Jeb Conrad, president and CEO of the economic development umbrella, said was a chance to update the Alliance’s 150 stakeholders on what has happened locally.

Chancellors from two of the city’s higher education institutions, IU Kokomo and Ivy Tech Community College, stressed the importance of their fields — education.

IU Kokomo Chancellor Michael Harris said regional transformation will depend on the area’s ability to shift from a manufacturing-based economy to an economy of knowledge. The meaning of the message, one Harris has emphasized since he came to Kokomo in 2010, is higher educations are necessary for better lives for individuals and better local economies.

Ivy Tech Chancellor Steve Daily referred to his term as Kokomo’s mayor in the early 1980s, when the area underwent a recession.

Tactics for economic development have since changed. Working independently toward prosperity is no longer optional for city governments, county governments, universities, businesses and other organizations involved in steering their areas’ growth.

Conrad highlighted the Alliance’s several, small projects and their accomplishments: downtown redevelopment that has attracted 13 new businesses, a business incubator that has nine companies and produced four graduates, and receiving Shovel Ready status for a Kokomo site, among others.

Of the investments, the largest sum, almost $1.3 billion, is coming from Chrysler Group. The money has helped secure 4,700 jobs in the city, said Brian Harlow, who oversees Chrysler’s Kokomo operations.

Equipment is set to go in at the end of the year to produce eight-speed transmissions, and the company has placed equipment orders for nine-speed transmissions.

Without Kokomo and Howard County officials’ support, along with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s business sense, Chrysler would not have endured the past two years in the city, Harlow said.

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight included Chrysler’s investments as part of a run of “extraordinary economic successes” over the last two years. “In order to understand where we are at,” Goodnight said, “it is important to understand where we have been.”

He referred to a time when Kokomo’s employers underwent bankruptcies, unemployment peaked at about 20 percent — Indiana most recently reported Kokomo had 11.3 percent unemployment in March — and Forbes Magazine declared Kokomo a “dying city.”

Howard County Commissioner Tyler Moore said Kokomo’s gains and losses equally affect Howard County. Both levels of local government, Moore said, have shown their support for partnerships in economic development. Recently, he noted as an example, Howard County has agreed to transfer the Kokomo Event Center to Ivy Tech.

One of the city’s employers that has raised the most concern has been General Motors Components Holdings. But as Plant Manager Steve Hartwig said, there are signs of hope for the assembly plant.

General Motors Co. took control of the facility from Delphi Electronics and Safety. GMCH, a subsidiary of GM, was faced with the looming end to its contract with Delphi. In response, GMCH revamped its business plan for the Kokomo operations to find customers outside the auto industry to buy the circuit chip wafers it produces.

The company has signed a contract to sell to IXYS Corp., a technology company in Milpitas, Calif. GMCH simultaneously has gained business from companies struggling to find parts because of shortages caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The recent job growth has led to hiring. “[Monday] was the first day of work for nearly 50 new employees,” Hartwig told a cheering crowd Tuesday. There has also been a couple hundred million dollars in local investments from the GMCH plant’s former owner, Delphi.

Kevin Clancey, general director of human resources for Delphi Electronics and Safety, noted the company’s two major investments in the last two years. Delphi will invest almost $180 million, half from a government grant and half its own money, at its Morgan Street operations. There the company is producing parts for batteries that go into electric and hybrid vehicles.

Investment No. 2 is $25 million Delphi is spending on a new building next to its Corporate Technology Center on Lincoln Road.

Small business also had input Tuesday on Kokomo’s economic recovery. Crista Tharp, owner of Tharp Events, was the Alliance’s small business success story of the evening. Tharp, a mother of nine with no formal business education, used help 11 years ago from the Kokomo-Howard Chamber of Commerce to begin a business, sell it and begin another. “Who would have thought a woman who graduated from IU … with a voice-music degree and nine children … could be a success?” she said. “Well, the Alliance has so much to do with that.”

Event Emcee Paul Wyman ended the evening comparing national media reports, forecasting doom for Kokomo, to recent headlines showing the city’s successes. “Let’s keep the City of Firsts alive, let’s create a new and better way to do economic development,” he said. “… We all get to write the story of our future.”

• About the author:
Daniel Human – Kokomo Tribune business reporter