The Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority has approved its first six READI grants, totaling $17.9 million.

That’s more than 35% of the total $50 million the region was allocated last December in state Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative – or READI – money.

It’s anyone’s guess what the five-member board will run out of first: money or time.

Indiana Economic Development Corp. officials have said they want regional decisions made by the end of next year. But, more recently, Gov. Eric Holcomb said he’d like to see the total $500 million in grants promised to specific projects by the end of this year.

That’s a tall challenge for the board, which next meets at 2 p.m. Tuesday. It takes time to disburse $50 million while following strict state and federal rules, according to members of the board’s support staff.

Jeff Turner, the Regional Development Authority’s board chairman, is game to shoot for the earlier deadline, however.

“It’s our goal to get this money out there and working in the region as fast as we can,” he said Friday. “It does feel doable, and it’s what we want to do, too.”

A crucial step

Numerous communities are jostling for a place on the Regional Development Authority’s agenda. Even so, no projects are included on Tuesday’s agenda, and Mike Galbraith, who supports the Regional Development Authority as a consultant, said Friday he doubts any applicants will be fully ready to make a pitch by then.

Making an official pitch to the board is a crucial step in the race for project approval. But it can’t happen until after Ryan Twiss, vice president of regional initiatives for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, and Galbraith determine the project meets a laundry list of requirements.

READI money can’t account for more than 20% of the total project cost. Local money should total an additional 20% to demonstrate community support, according to the IEDC’s guidelines. The remaining 60% can come from private and federal sources.

Developers are also evaluated to ensure they have sufficient experience and financial resources to successfully fulfill their vision.

After the Regional Development Authority grants conditional approval, IEDC officials review and approve each funding decision before it becomes official. Although the state agency can overturn a grant, it didn’t reject any of those advanced by the Regional Development Authority for Regional Cities Initiative funding.

That doesn’t mean all the money would be paid out at that point. Projects have to meet certain completion benchmarks before funding is released, a process the IEDC recommends and the Regional Development Authority practiced seven years ago when it distributed about $42 million in Regional Cities Initiative grants.

Projects that receive READI grants must be completed by the end of 2026, Galbraith said late last month during a sit-down interview with The Journal Gazette and Twiss at the Regional Partnership’s downtown office.

Green-light projects

The six projects already approved are in four counties: Allen, Huntington, Noble and Wabash. Four of them were included in the Growing with Vision Plan submitted to state officials when northeast Indiana competed with other regions in the state for READI money.

The projects, which have received conditional approval for READI money, are:

• Gateway West, an expansion at Fort Wayne International Airport that will add square footage in the terminal, increase access to larger aircraft and upgrade the mechanical system including air filtration – a $3 million grant toward a $62.7 million project;

• Riverfront Phase II, will extend public space from Promenade Park along the St. Marys River west to Ewing Street and east to Clinton Street in downtown Fort Wayne, including extension of the tree canopy trail and the addition of boat docks, a bouldering mound, walking trails and a hammock grove – a $6 million grant toward a $94.9 million project;

• Village Premier, a mixed-income, mixed-use development in southeast Fort Wayne that would create “a vibrant, walkable neighborhood” – a $6 million grant toward a $59.3 million project;

• Legacy Heights, a 52- unit workforce housing development in Wabash on the former site of Parkview Wabash Hospital – a $2.44 million grant toward a $14.3 million project;

• Industry 4.0/iSmart Factory Lab, a robotics/smart factory lab that will train manufacturing sector workers at the Community Learning Center in Kendallville – a $198,450 grant toward a $2.6 million project;

• Rivergreen Housing, a 48-unit apartment complex renovation project in Huntington by Biggs Development – a $249,000 grant toward a $6.1 million project.

Bracing for impact

Turner also chaired the Regional Development Authority’s board when the five-man group first grappled with how to distribute Regional Cities Initiative money, which was awarded to the region in 2015.

At that time, John Sampson, the Regional Partnership’s former president and CEO, cautioned the board against running out of money by quickly approving the first applicants to qualify. Sampson, who had helped the region petition the IEDC for Regional Cities money, argued that only projects that would have a significant impact on the region’s quality-of-place should be funded.

Turner learned some lessons while distributing those grants and believes READI grant applicants learned some, too, including the types of projects that can qualify and what documentation is needed to be considered. Developers and communities pitching projects now are more savvy about this process, he said.

And board members can worry a bit less about choosing the most effective economic development projects, Turner said, after seeing the significant effect Regional Cities-funded projects have had across northeast Indiana.

“Every (READI) project that gets approved is going to be a quality project that’s going to be impactful,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the board and its support staff aren’t playing traffic cop with the flow of projects coming up for consideration. Three of the six projects approved so far are in Fort Wayne, and the city has more projects ready to taxi down the runway.

“We could give it all away tomorrow,” Turner said of the remaining $32.1 million – minus modest administrative costs.

But the board has asked Fort Wayne officials to hang back for the time being.

“They understand that this money has to be impactful regionwide,” Turner said, adding that additional city projects could receive funding if alternatives don’t quickly emerge from surrounding counties. Northeast Indiana comprises Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties.

Turner said some area communities were relatively slow in assembling projects that could qualify for Regional Cities funding. But this time around, he said, they’ve been quicker to meet with the board’s support staff for guidance about navigating the process.

“It’s a much greater variety of projects,” he said. “Not everyone understood, essentially, that this was free money to get projects over the finish line.”

‘Hard decisions’

Kevan Biggs, one of three partners in RTM Ventures, the Electric Works developer, is participating in the Rivergreen Housing and Legacy Heights projects.

The experienced builder has worked on numerous funding packages. He said the information required for READI grant applications is the type any prepared developer should gather before embarking on a project.

“It was thorough, but it wasn’t overly onerous or terribly rigorous,” Biggs said the READI process.

In fact, he said, the Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority required “about 50 times that amount” of information when Biggs Development applied for rental housing tax credit for the Huntington apartments renovation project referred to as Rivergreen Housing.

Officials who oversee the highly competitive tax credit program provided developers an incentive to apply for READI money, Biggs said. Being approved for the grant improves his chances of being approved for rental housing tax credit. He will find out in November whether that request was approved.

The application was due July 25.

“They were incredibly cooperative in helping us move along to meet that deadline,” Biggs said of the Regional Development Authority’s board and support staff.

One of the board’s priorities is to support housing projects. Because of the region’s housing shortage, some employers can’t expand and create new jobs as quickly as they’d like, which limits economic development, Galbraith said.

“Frankly, we could spend every single cent of this ($50 million) on housing, and people would think we’ve done a good job,” he said, adding that the majority of READI funding committed so far is going toward housing projects.

Even so, the board is also committed to supporting downtown vibrancy and entrepreneurship/innovation. And it hopes to provide an economic boost to the entire region.

“Our job,” Galbraith said, “is to present the board with great projects, forcing them to make hard decisions.”

Assistant Desk Editor

Sherry Slater, Assistant Desk Editor, has more than 25 years of experience at newspapers in Maryland and Indiana. She has covered business issues at The Journal Gazette since 2001 and has additional editing duties.