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Michiana 2027: diversifying South Bend's economy

SOUTH BEND, In. – Many decades after the manufacturing boom imploded innovation now anchors South Bend’s diverse economy.

“What we hope is that we’re well balanced in a bunch of industries,” said Jeff Rea, the President and CEO of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We’ll build an economy on a lot of smaller companies. That’s really critical for us long term.”

There are quite a few drivers steering this city’s high hopes for its economy.

Around 4,000 businesses make up the area.

And a quarter of them are registered with the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, employing more than 60,000 people.

“And they really go all sectors, but I will tell you that probably 85 percent of our businesses are small,” said Rea.

That’s around 800 local shops, setting up shop right here in South Bend.

And it’s also by design.

“Think about Studebaker for example employing some 25,000 people here,” said Rea. “So we think it’s a good strength going forward not having all our eggs in one basket if you will.”

Building cars was literally the largest economic driver in the heydays of South Bend.

“When you consider the Studebaker had been here for well over 100 years by that time, no one could envision south bend without Studebaker,” said Andrew Beckman, archivist for the Studebaker Museum. “Just beyond the dollars and cents, Studebaker’s social and cultural impact on our community cannot be understated.”

Before there was a Ford in Detroit, there was a Studebaker in South Bend, manufacturing these buggies.

“The industry and to a certain degree the infrastructure had been in place since the late 19th century,” said Beckman. “If you look at Detroit, it was all new businesses coming in and starting the auto industry.”

Innovation led to the company’s shift from horse drawn buggies to cars.

“When they were entering the automobile market, what was the automobile? It was the next thing, the next thing in technology,” said Beckman.

And although it is now many decades defunct, that legacy of innovation continues.

“The history of MTI follows the history of manufacturing in South Bend,” said Bob Besse, MTI Manufacturing Sales and Marketing Vice President. “We worked with Studebaker as they went through their struggles, we diversified into other industries.”

The folks at MTI will tell you manufacturing still a thriving industry.

“We’ve been around, family owned businesses in its 4th generation since 1926 and we just continued to grow,” said Besse.

MTI employs 105 workers in South Bend between two sites and has three locations overseas.

What was once a local start up way back when, is now a global company.

“We got into other industries, we got into other product lines, we got into other technology and we continue to do that, looking at the next 10 years, we’re innovating and looking at other ways we can take our processes, work with our customers and find other products of theirs we can make,” said Besse.

After the closing of the Studebaker, manufacturing in the South Bend evolved.

 “Manufacturing in the days of old was very low-skilled,” said Rea. “Now we’re seeing a much higher skilled-manufacturing set.”

Skills you’ll often find on a campus like Notre Dame’s.

“There have to be ways to get what’s happening on campus out to the community and what’s happening in the community on to campus,” said Bryan Ritchie, the Vice President and Associate Provost of Innovation.

The answer was campus campus-community partnerships in ignition park and innovation park.

“It’s a place where we can co-work, where we can innovate together, where we can de-risk, and accelerate technology together and hopefully create new opportunities for companies and technologies that are being formed in the community and on campus to stay in the region,” said Ritchie.

In just three years of being open, the entrepreneurial hub is looking at 60 student start ups and 21 faculty companies in the pipeline.

“We also have a number of community startups that we’re working with as well to move down this path so we’re expecting big things, we’re expecting some big turnaround in terms of  number of companies being produced,” said Ritchie.

That’s encouraging in this city.

Because while big companies coming to town would be nice, the goal is to help build up the many local small ones.

“Everybody gets real excited about ‘can we attract the new guy in from out of town?’ but really the successful economic strategy is growing what you have,” said Rea.

It might not be Chicago or Indy, but with time it could be a city with an economy just as diverse.

“It’s all within reach, if we move things in the right direction we will become that hot bed if you will,” said Rea.

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