A few years ago, “stellar” wasn't exactly considered a compliment in Decatur, Mayor Ken Meyer recalls.
That was after the Adams County village of 9,500 applied twice to become a Stellar Community in a competition for sizable community development money through the state – and lost.
“It got to where the word 'stellar' was a word you didn't even say after the second time,” Meyer said last week.
But in eastern Allen County, the Stellar Communities initiative, which will again award millions this year through the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, hasn't lost its sparkle.
The NewAllen Alliance, a group of seven communities, is now putting the finishing touches on plans for a proposed $50.8 million in community improvements to meet a Sept. 21 application deadline.
The alliance already has been named one of six finalists from around Indiana. The alliance's next step is meeting with local government officials to shore up funding commitments, Kent Castleman, alliance president, said last week.
Castleman and Kristi Sturtz, the alliance's rural liaison, met Thursday with the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board – a group that last year tabled a request for nearly $2.5 million in matching money for East Allen projects. But the board said it might be receptive later if more details were provided.
This time, the alliance asked the board for $4.25 million to fill out funding for the Stellar Communities proposal, now being called the East Allen Rural Revival.
The board again tabled the request, but board President James Cook said it would schedule a special meeting to allow further review before a vote in time for New Allen to meet its application deadline.
On Thursday, the board was told the money could be paid out gradually over the four or five years allowed for substantial completion of Stellar projects.
But some members balked, saying they were uncertain if the proposal fit the CIB mandate because it centered more on quality-of-life improvements such as parks and trails than economic development.
But those kinds of improvements can be drivers of economic growth and are what the Stellar Communities program wants, Castleman said.
“I think they were listening with open ears and realized our region was listening to them,” he said after the board meeting.
Local funding commitments, he said, show “a level of readiness from communities that these projects have funding potential.
Highlights of projects included in the East Allen Rural Revival's Stellar Communities proposal:
Leo-Cedarville – Cedar Creek Parks Trail, connections from Hurshtown Reservoir to the center of Cedarville and from there to Metea Park and streetscape improvements including measures to slow traffic
New Haven – Development of outdoor amenities at New Haven-Adams Township Community Center
Monroeville – Community park improvements including a fishing pier or deck and outdoor pavilion-like arena
Woodburn – Community Park improvements
Grabill – Streetscape and facade improvements and trail connector
New Haven, Harlan and Monroeville – Development of new housing for low-income seniors and rehabilitation funding for homeowners
Some designs are in hand, but if the effort wins, communities' projects could undergo further fine-tuning on design, with additional opportunities for public input, Sturtz said. A winner will be announced in December.
The stakes are great.
Available Stellar-related funding includes $4.5 million in community development block grants, $2 million in rural transportation program funds, $800,000 in annual housing tax credits, $250,000 for owner-occupied housing rehabilitation and $35,000 for rural health programs.
When Delphi won in 2012, the second year of the competition, the money jump-started $23 million in improvements.
Delphi has rehabilitated downtown homes and facades, added loft-style apartments and improved trails, streetscapes and water mains, Mayor Shane Evans said last week.
“The opera house was probably the centerpiece” of the improvements, Evans said. Dating from the Civil War-era, the building was made handicapped-accessible and given lighting and sound system improvements.
“It's become a destination for people from around the region,” Evans said.
Castleman said he thinks NewAllen's proposal has a good chance because the Stellar Communities program's design has changed.
“Usually in the past, only one community could win, but this year it has to be two or more communities working as a region,” he explained. Unlike some entrants, the NewAllen region is a natural and existing combination of communities with similar interests and goals, he said.
Also, the process of regional cooperation used to develop submissions is being given more weight – which the local communities have been working for the last three years, Castleman said.
He said he hopes that the CIB will come through with funding, inasmuch as the purchase of the former Casad Depot, a sprawling World War II-era military munitions facility, appears less likely now that the property has been put on the auction block by the federal government.
The CIB had granted up to $1 million in matching funds to the city of New Haven for that purchase.
Castleman said he hopes that money can be repurposed as a sign of commitment to east Allen County's 56,000 residents.
NewAllen plans to seek $4.25 million this week from the Allen County commissioners and an additional $1 million from Allen County Council at an undetermined time.
In Decatur, Meyer said, the sting of not winning a Stellar Community designation has faded somewhat.
Even though no money was awarded, “all the things we wanted to do, we figured out how to do on our own,” he said. That was a result of the process of planning and strategizing the program required, Meyer said.
Decatur now has a popular sculpture tour and downtown plaza, a facade improvement program and a nature preserve. The community is moving forward on buying riverfront property and making baseball diamond improvements, he said.
The Greater Decatur committee convened to work on the plan still meets every month, Meyer said.
“I would think that the (NewAllen) application would have to be a very strong applicant. I would be surprised if they don't win, but then I was surprised when we didn't,” Meyer said. “Before Stellar, we didn't have a lot of vision. If it hadn't been for that, what's happened probably wouldn't have happened.
“Overall, the process was very helpful to our community.”
Funding commitment meetings for the Stellar Communities application by the NewAllen Alliance took place last week in Woodburn, Grabill and Leo-Cedarville.
They will continue this week:
• 7 p.m. Monday – New Haven City Council meeting, 815 Lincoln Highway East
• 10 a.m. Friday – Allen County commissioners meeting, Room 35, Citizens Square, 200 E. Berry St.
• 7 p.m. Sept. 5 – Monroeville Town Council meeting,104 Allen St.