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  • Writer's pictureLori Gagen

With my head held high, I share my story and pride

Updated: Apr 17

Life is like a box of chocolates. You'll probably fail to anticipate it's going to melt all over your pants and ruin your day.


Lori Gagen
Keeping my head held high as I leave my "day job."

When I arrived at my day job on a typical Tuesday morning recently, the last thing I expected was to be told I was terminated. Well, maybe it wasn't the last thing I expected, but it was certainly a surprise. To so many of my closest colleagues, who were also sincerely shocked and concerned, thank you for the kindness and support as I transition forward.


What I really want to talk about are some of the projects I was privileged to take from idea to results while working in economic development, and how they have helped my community thrive.


I should preface these stories with a disclaimer, of sorts. With my departure, I have no idea if all of these great resources will survive. That is not a statement from my ego, it is just a fact. With anyone's absence, so goes what they knew - barring a sincere and effective effort to preserve or transfer that knowledge. I guess someone could start from scratch, a notion I would not wish on anyone.


But I digress. About those projects of which I am proud....


SHOPNoble

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, our little community, like thousands of others around the world, shut down. In Noble County, about eighty percent of all business entities are small, employing fewer than ten people. At the time, very few locally-owned retail shops or restaurants had more than a Google listing or barely-used Facebook page.


A tiny fraction of our local eateries were ready to offer online ordering, delivery, or any of the many other value-added services that would rapidly define which would survive and which could actually thrive. But how would they communicate their transitions to patrons quickly, before the bleeding began?


SHOPNoble promo

With the capacity to act quickly, our team decided to move forward, which put me in charge and on track to develop a new brand and website to enable us, in collaboration with and on behalf of our local small businesses owners, a way to communicate to consumers - and a way for consumers to find real time options.


As the SHOPNoble website, featuring an online, interactive directory took shape, it not only provided a quick and easy space to organize and share business information and COVID-related changes, it expanded the sector's digital footprint immediately. Some complementary social media marketing campaigns, press releases, and other marketing tools were used to help build the audience quickly and the resource took hold.


Once SHOPNoble took shape, I added a blog and began populating the site with resources and how-tos aimed at helping small business owners learn and make use of other resources that could further enhance digital marketing efforts. I published videos and articles about best practices using Facebook Pages and how to claim Google Business listings. A short time later, I added a community e-gift card program, which our team promoted and grew to include over forty Noble County small businesses exclusively. That platform is still growing!


Today, SHOPNoble features about 300 locally-owned small businesses, Indiana Foodways Alliance participating restaurants, interactive directories for all kinds of local services, plastic and e-gift card options, and, for the holidays, is home to a 'Made in Noble' gift basket catalog. Made in Noble further supports Noble County's small business community by curating and offering unique products and services produced and offered in our own community through online orders, which the office team fills in time for gift-giving.


I am happy to say that many months ago, the efforts to maintain and grow engagement in SHOPNoble were transitioned to a coworker, so I anticipate SHOPNoble is here to stay!


NoblePalooza

COVID-19 was once again the motivation for conversations, this time around how to help bring Noble County "back together" and go from idle into first gear, and to celebrate the relatively minor impacts the shutdown had locally on our economy.


Honored and propelled by the trust of my colleagues on a committee of volunteer leaders called Thrive Noble County, I listened and kept notes to help keep brainstorming conversations moving forward. Over the course of several months, a plan began to form. This plan was for a community celebration, something different than the usual tradeshow, but with similar planning characteristics.


"It has to be something that sounds fun!" The committee was in complete agreement this event, later named NoblePalooza, an Expo to Thrive, also had to help community members recognize and become more intentional about how the Five Pillars of Thrive must be paid attention in order for our fresh air community to not only survive, but thrive long-term.


NoblePalooza
Local volunteers engage at NoblePalooza.

Never having planned an event of this magnitude, I relied on relationships and technology to take a framework of ideas and produce an event that featured about 75 organizations (booths) and brought together about 250 attendees. In year two, the event grew in scope to take up space on two floors of a local venue, with about 100 organizations, a youth business fair, and a gardening symposium. Around 600 people attended. In the spring of 2024, NoblePalooza hosted over 100 organizations, about 800 attendees, a youth entrepreneur fair, local small business marketplace, food vendors, and the gardening symposium. A shuttle was also added to provide some remote parking.


I single-handedly selected the tools to communicate, market, make floor plans, design signage and collateral materials. I developed and executed a marketing plan; secured tradeshow services; worked with the venue's team; handled public relations; and recruited and managed volunteers. I also relied on my coworker to take on registrations and collections in year two, which was a huge help.


I would not know how to manage an event of this scale without the use of technologies. Along the way I discovered and learned to use SmartDraw, a valuable space planning tool. Other key resources included Wufoo forms, Wix, Hubspot, and Canva. Additional marketing tools included Adobe Premiere Elements and Google Photos, used to share media capturing all of the fun that was had!


As for outcomes, much of the evidence is anecdotal, however surveys show this event has definitely helped move the needle on Thrive's objectives, in terms of building community pride, connecting people and assets, driving more collaboration, and giving people the knowledge to be more intentional about the 5 Pillars. I have been told it is well-planned and executed, and I take pride in it.



Engage Noble

Another idea, like NoblePalooza, was born of brainstorming with the very smart people I call friends and colleagues. They make up the steering committee called Thrive Noble County. Thrivers came to a firm agreement that Noble County needed a leadership academy - an idea that has been kicked around for years and one they just could not "shake."


The desired outcomes of developing a new leadership training program were clear. The community needs more civic leaders, more people to run for elected offices, more young leaders, and more individuals to volunteer and preserve the unique places and activities that define our community. Those serving in leadership roles also, they thought, should look as diverse as the place they are. All demographics should be seen and heard.


So how does one start a leadership academy? Step one is that someone has to take the lead. This is where I came in, and proudly so! With the steering committee to guide me, and more than willing to be my sounding board and ultimate decision-makers, I got to work. I first gathered data - what are our neighboring counties doing? How long are their classes? What does their curriculum look like and what fits our objectives? What might we learn may not help us achieve them? Relying on relationships, I began calling, emailing, and scanning program websites and landing pages to build my base of knowledge.


Over the summer, meeting monthly, I led the effort to hone in on what elements were needed within our unique curriculum from the many options I found. I issued requests for proposals from as many local trainers and educators as I could find, relying a lot on the recommendations of peer programs around the region.


Engage Noble
Engage Noble first cohort in class at the Ligonier Fire Station.

Eventually, I filled a spreadsheet schedule to determine the desired curriculum would require eight seminars, each at a different venue, with food and beverages provided by a different local small businesses. We held firm to our desire to feature all of the 5 Pillars in our program framework.


Once this major piece was pretty fleshed out, I would work to create a proposed three-year budget and begin fundraising. Without seed funds, there could be no program. Within weeks, I would secure funding commitments by writing grant proposals and providing measurable outcomes and methods of measurement. Four local foundations, one hundred percent of those I asked, would agree to fund this important program.


I would invite more than fifty-five local business leaders, community leaders, elected officials, and former officeholders to serve on panels to share and discuss every sector of our local economy and community. Not one hesitated to serve, a fact I attribute to community need, but also my personal and professional relationships. Their trust in me and our team's collective efforts was clear.


I would create an electronic system to receive and track inquiries and enrollments (using Wufoo forms) and collaborate with my coworker to track tuition payments and expenses, closely monitoring the budget along the way.


Working with a training consultant, we would share documents using Google Drive and have meaningful and productive planning conversations. I learned a lot.


A Kick-Off Celebration and Graduation Celebration were also planned to bookend the classes. I designed a logo, branding, and a new website, featuring an alumni-only section to give access to curated and recommended multi-media leadership resources and materials. The site would also include a forum to share news and opportunities with other members.


Over the duration of the first cohort of Engage Noble, we would all grow together. The pride I felt in learning that some of these fine individuals would be asked to serve on local boards; have their self-confidence boosted, seek, and land promotions at work; move from a place of fear to a place of 'I just need to do it!' would be more than I ever expected. Some have said they may run for office! I sincerely hope this program will continue and have already shared, with some who have influence, how much I hope to still contribute in some way.


Over my five years in economic development, I have met hundreds of movers and shakers across Northeast Indiana. I have had the honor of really getting to know and serve dozens of them through collaborative leadership of projects and initiatives, program development, project implementation, and special events - where we often came together to celebrate shared wins. I have planned special events. I have started with no knowledge about a subject and grew to become capable of writing articles about them in great detail.


These experiences, perhaps more than any other in my portfolio, help tell my story. I am an experienced, hard-working, curious, capable servant leader with a diverse set of skills - hard and soft - and have worked in many sectors. If I can help you take your concepts from ideas to results, please reach out. I hope to hear from you soon! =

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rdcalhoun2003
Apr 14

Lori you are an amazing asset to Noble County! I don’t know what plan God has for you but I know He has a plan that will put you exactly where He needs you to be!

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