SOUTH BEND -- As it turns out, contrary to widespread perceptions, South Bend is a pretty low-cost place to do business.
Unfortunately, site selectors say they don't know whom to call when they have questions about development opportunities.
Some good news is advanced manufacturing holds great potential to grow high-paying jobs in the area. The bad news is there aren't enough local workers with the skills necessary to fill those positions.
South Bend has a long list of assets -- road, rail and fiber-optic infrastructure, proximity to population centers, several universities, a large river, historic architecture, a strong arts scene -- but the city's image needs to be marketed in a better way.
Those are the hard truths and opportunities that surfaced Thursday at the South Bend Economic Summit.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg promised last fall that, if elected, he would organize a summit where the various groups that work on economic development in South Bend could come together.
He delivered on that promise Thursday when his office hosted the daylong event with the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County and the Corporate Partnership for Economic Growth.
"We've identified over 40 different groups that work on economic development in this city," Buttigieg told the audience of more than 250 people at Century Center.
"It is great to have that amount of energy and effort going into economic activity," he said, "but we also have to have clear coordination, clear understanding of who does what and how we can help each other. That's part of what today is about."
Scott Ford, the city's new executive director for community and economic development, also described some proposed changes in the department's structure.
Ford said the goal is to streamline the processes by which businesses interact with city government, and make those processes more transparent, predictable and user-friendly.
For example, the department is developing software to track interactions with businesses and make sure people get the responses they need.
The department could also add a new position -- an assistant executive director who would be a point person for businesses. "They would be a very strong liaison with the business community," Ford said, "and their job would be to shepherd projects through the city."
David Zaharchuk, a consultant with IBM Global Business Services, described some of South Bend's economic strengths and weaknesses.
Zaharchuk noted that, in some cases, South Bend residents and business people could erase some "perceived weaknesses" with better marketing. "South Bend doesn't do a good enough job of bragging about itself," he said.
One point several speakers stressed Thursday is South Bend needs a work force that is prepared with training beyond high school to work in advanced manufacturing and computing -- two sectors with potential for local growth.
"Everything comes back to work force and education," said Phil D'Amico, the Chamber's director of business growth. "There are jobs out there if we prepare our work force."
Robert Weissbourd, an economic development expert and fellow at the Brookings Institution, was the summit's keynote speaker.
Weissbourd made the point that economic development isn't just about low costs. "In this economy," he said, "you want to compete on value added."
Buttigieg closed the summit by challenging everyone to prepare a 100-word "elevator pitch" about South Bend to use when describing the city to someone who isn't familiar with it.
"Perhaps the biggest thing we heard today is we need to understand our story and tell it," he said. "All of us are ambassadors or representatives or sales people for South Bend."
Staff writer Kevin Allen: