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December 28, 2012

A lifelong learner

CLEDO’s Neininger melds community background, small business experience in new Cass County post.

LOGANSPORT — Nearly 20 years in banking. Seven leading a community foundation and about seven more heading up White County’s economic development organization.

And Connie Neininger is just now getting her bachelor’s degree.

Neininger, a 1975 graduate of Wabash High School, started this fall as president of the newly renamed Cass Logan Economic Development Organization, formerly Logansport-Cass Economic Development Foundation. She had spent most of her childhood and much of her adult life in Monticello, where she lives with her husband, Ross.

When Neininger’s family moved to Wabash halfway through her high school career, she stayed in touch with her friends in Monticello as much as possible, often meeting them halfway in Logansport.

“I remember coming over here to shop at the mall,” said Neininger. “We’d come over here to the movies, everything.”

Now in her first year pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business management from Indiana Wesleyan University, Neininger entered the workforce immediately after high school. And though she’s since completed multiple three-year certification programs — one for banking and one for economic development — she views a bachelor’s degree as “something I always wanted to do.”

“I always felt it would give me a better understanding of, of life in general,” Neininger explained. “And it sets an example. It’s never too late to learn.”

When Neininger started with CLEDO in November, she said then that encouraging members of the local workforce to earn post-secondary certifications through local adult education programs would be a priority.

“If I’m going to tell people you need to go to college,” she noted, “I better be willing to do that too.”

Neininger describes herself as a “lifelong learner,” but for more reasons than just her recent college pursuits.

She enjoys visiting area parks and nature trails with her two granddaughters, ages 6 and 11, and teaches them to identify plants and birds during the day and constellations by night.

“It’s nothing for us to walk six hours on a Saturday morning,” Neininger said. And the girls, who call her “Mimi,” have surprised her by how much they remember about the flowers and stars she has pointed out to them.

Before dipping her toes into economic development in January of 2006, she had been the founding director of the White County Community Foundation, established in 1998 as an affiliate of the Greater Lafayette Community Foundation. She worked in commercial lending for 19 years before switching to the nonprofit.

When White County’s economic development organization brought her on board, they also contracted with consultant Robert Hanni, a founding board member with whom Neininger had worked in lending.

Since she had no background specifically in economic development, that job was “initiation by fire,” she said.

“I will be forever grateful” to Hanni, she added. “He taught me everything I know.”

Hanni’s approach was “it’s all about the community,” Neininger said. They began their work in White County by going to the various communities and listening to what residents said was needed.

She’s followed the same methodology in Cass County, she said.

Although working in Cass County, she’s decided to remain a White County resident. Her daughter manages a store she and her husband own there.

Neininger and her husband bought the Monticello convenience store now named RC’s Corner Cupboard in 2004.

“That was my husband’s dream,” Neininger explained. “He had wanted that store from the time he was young.”

It’s become a “great sounding board” in her economic development work, she said. “By having that business, I understand the challenges (small business owners) go through every day.”

And to stay connected with economic development trends across a larger region, Neininger is on the Indiana Economic Development Association board of directors and is one of two Indiana directors that hold seats on the board of the Mid-America Economic Development Council, which represents 10 northern states in the Midwest. She’s been on each of those boards at least three years.

Her approach to economic development is a little wider-ranging than simply focusing on bringing more employers to town, though — evidenced, in part, in her emphasis on helping people pursue higher education.

“I look at economic development as developing a community first,” she said. “Because without community development, you can’t have economic development.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151.

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