Local leaders form a new organization to enhance life on the southside

By Alisa Advani  

Almost two years ago, a group of key Southside business leaders came together to form Aspire Johnson County, a Johnson County Development Corp. (JCDC) community initiative program. Born from a collective, prevalent desire to make Johnson County a favored destination to live, work and play, the all-volunteer effort drives four key initiatives: countywide branding, talent development and retention, quality of life enhancement and infrastructure planning and expansion.

Aspire Johnson County started when Cheryl Morphew and her executive committee co-chairmen, Larry Heydon, CEO of Johnson Memorial Hospital, and Brent Tilson, founder of Tilson HR, used seed funding from JCDC and the Johnson County Community Foundation (JCCF) to hire Lee Lewellen, a consultant with a long history in economic and community development.

Lewellen facilitated an initial community discussion among more than 60 leaders, business executives, community trailblazers, educators, nonprofit managers and engaged residents from across the county, which led to the founding of Aspire Johnson County.

“After identifying the leaders who wanted forward progress, we determined the target areas that make up Aspire Johnson County’s mission, with focuses on brand, workforce, infrastructure and quality of life,” Lewellen says. “Once the key people and the key initiatives were identified, Cheryl wanted to create a platform for all that to come together.”

“The absolute beauty of this initiative is that it has continued to grow,” Morphew says. “It seems every month we have new leaders or residents coming to meetings because they ‘heard about Aspire’ and ‘want to make a difference in their community.’ To date, we have 130 people actively engaged in the Aspire JC program.”

Lewellen’s work brought to light several key, untapped community assets worth touting. The proximity to downtown Indianapolis and Columbus makes Johnson County very desirable geographically, and the excellence of the county’s schools is undeniable, he says.

Aside from geography and educational opportunity, the cost of living and the area’s safety profile add to the southside’s appeal. With these core concepts in mind, members of Aspire began tackling the other three initiatives.

This past June, members of the group worked with local instrument manufacturer Endress+Hauser to invite eighth-grade students and their parents to look at the new face of high-tech manufacturing. “We want to start communicating with students early on so that Johnson County is at the forefront of their minds when they choose a place to live and work,” explains Tina Gross, campus president at Ivy Tech and Aspire JC’s talent team co-chairwoman. “We also want them to see that manufacturing has changed tremendously.”

Executives at Endress+Hauser saw an excellent opportunity to build its future workforce while helping Aspire Johnson County work toward its mission of retaining local talent. “Many students, parents and educators are unaware of the exciting career opportunities that exist right here in their own backyard,” says Brandyn Ferguson, vice president of human resources at Endress+Hauser. “Many of these kids and their parents believe they need to go elsewhere to find a job in the engineering field.

Gross and her team are planning a health care event for middle school students in the spring. Johnson Memorial Hospital and Franciscan St. Francis plan to co-host the gathering, which will be modeled after the Endress+Hauser event. Jane Blessing, director of the Johnson Memorial Hospital Foundation, and Joe Sagorsky, director of the Franciscan St. Francis employer health solutions division, serve as the project’s leaders. Details are still being decided.

“St. Francis is happy to join Aspire Johnson County in this effort,” says Sagorsky. The goal, he explains, is to help the community foster excellent job opportunities and retain skilled professionals.

The next scheduled community-wide meeting will be April 30. Jody Veldcamp, Aspire JC’s infrastructure team leader, will be there to discuss Interstate 69 and State Road 37, among other issues. “We will look at how to develop valuable commercial corridors while protecting homeowners,” Veldcamp says.

The infrastructure meeting will be just one of four planned community-wide assemblies in 2015. Each team will continue to seek further input from the corporate and residential sides of the region to refine their work.

  Morphew, who looks forward to all the next steps, has a clear view of Johnson County in the next 10 years. “Johnson County will continue to grow,” she says. “We are one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, as well as the Indy metro region. … I am confident that the work of Aspire JC will collectively make Johnson County a much better place.”

For more information, visit aspirejohnsoncounty.org.