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Key to continued revitalization in Kokomo is willingness to take risks

Editor's note: What will Kokomo look like in 10 years? That's the question the Tribune posed to seven community leaders as part of a week-long series looking at the future of the city. Over the next few days, each leader will share a vision for the community, and what they hope to see happen in the next decade:

Kokomo today is not the same Kokomo Morgan Young grew up in, and he says that’s a good thing.

As a pastor, business owner and educator, Young interacts with many sectors of the Kokomo community, and in the past few years he’s seen different elements come together to transform the Kokomo of yesterday into a progressive city with a future in the modern economic landscape.

“I feel like my entire life in Kokomo, we just kept running the same plays all the time and hoping things would be different or hoping things would prosper or hoping things would change,” Young said, seated at a table in Main Street Café, the downtown coffee shop and restaurant he and his wife, Sandra Young, opened in 2012. “What I’ve seen in the last handful of years is we’re actually doing things differently and getting different results.”

Young, a Kokomo native, says the city’s downtown exemplifies the progress he’s seen since Mayor Greg Goodnight began leading the city in 2008, though some of the pieces were put into place under previous Mayor Matt McKillip, he added.

Then in 2010, Kokomo School Corp. hired Superintendent Jeff Hauswald, who brought a new direction for the school district that dovetailed with Goodnight’s vision for transforming Kokomo’s downtown into a destination for city residents, full of locally owned stores, restaurants and other businesses. In the past five years, Hauswald has restructured Kokomo Schools to offer various magnet programs while maintaining traditional neighborhood schools and also building Kokomo’s international programs.

“Everybody in America is talking about how we should do education differently, and doggone it, in Kokomo we’re doing it differently,” Young said. “We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.”

Young has been on the front lines where the city and school corporation’s innovation intersected with the launch of the Kokomo CEO program for the 2014-15 school year. He facilitates the unique entrepreneurial program supported by 46 local businesses, governmental units and other organizations that attracts high school students from five school districts. The Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, Inventrek and Community Foundation of Howard County were instrumental in starting a local chapter of the 28-site CEO network.

Young introduces the budding student entrepreneurs to the basics of running a business and key players in Kokomo who are doing that successfully. He says the common theme behind accomplished entrepreneurs and Kokomo’s revitalization is a willingness to take risks.

“When you’re talking about entrepreneurism, the one common ingredient in it is risk,” Young said, giving the examples of California developer Jeff Broughton purchasing and re-developing multiple properties in downtown Kokomo in the past couple years in hopes of attracting new businesses, and the city demolishing the blighted homes in a flood zone to make room for a new baseball stadium.

Those are risky moves, and Young realizes not everyone is happy with them. But that’s another sign Kokomo is moving in a positive direction, he says.

“You kind of look at that and go, ‘Wow, I sure hope that works out,’” Young said. “All these things are risky things. One of the barometers I look at in terms of good leadership is people that are mad because good leaders do things differently. They do things that nobody expects, they do things that people don’t think they should do. … This idea that we’re all going to grow fast and everybody’s going to like it, that’s a pipe dream.”

Young would like to see that kind of risk-taking continue in Kokomo, though he thinks community leaders could do a better job of communicating their reasoning behind those risks to the public at large. For instance, Young said the people who live on the outskirts of the city limits and don’t understand why so much economic development is concentrated in a few blocks downtown may not realize that cities’ reputations are largely based on what their downtown has to offer.

“My whole life, downtown was just this thing that was slowly dying, and it’s come back to life in a really short amount of time,” Young said, referencing a 2008 article published by Forbes.com that called Kokomo the third-fastest dying city in America and then a Dec. 16 piece in Reuters that pointed to Kokomo as an example of hope for the U.S. economy.

“I want to see us keep running new plays,” Young continued. “I think we’re on the right track in terms of building a downtown. … When people look at the cost of living in Kokomo and they look at now the amenities that are coming into Kokomo, it’s rapidly becoming a more attractive place for young people to come and start families.”

Ideally, Young’s CEO graduates would want to stay in Howard County to start their businesses and raise their families, and Young says some of the pieces to make that happen are already in place. Young asked the 14 students in his first CEO class whether they would return to Kokomo after college, and at the beginning of the year just two or three raised their hands, he said.

But after a school year of networking with local business owners and learning more about the entrepreneurial opportunities in Kokomo, Young said nine students eventually said they could see themselves building a life in their hometowns.

As pastor of Oakbrook Church’s New Hope Church campus, Young also is plugged into the faith-based community. He’s been at Oakbrook since 1998, and he says local churches are working together better than ever before as they collaborate to put on events and offer more outreach.

Looking to Kokomo’s future, he wants to see more people take the lead who are willing to challenge the status quo and take the community in new directions.

“When people say they want to take back their country or they want to take back their town, to me that just sounds like going backward,” Young said. “I’m looking for leaders in education and civically who really want to blaze new trails and try new things - and you know what? - want to risk failing.”

Source: Kokomo Tribune

Education reporter Lauren Slagter can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at lauren.slagter@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LaurenSlagter.

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