Indiana's Regional Cities Initiative has been a rousing success, a Ball State University study says.
“In fact, the Regional Cities Initiative has been more successful from its onset than most people had hoped or predicted,” according to the study report, authored by Beth Neu, director of public policy and engagement at the Indiana Communities Institute. “The amount of private investment has already exceeded what was projected and – equally important – the enthusiasm it has sparked from residents and visitors about their communities is contagious and real.”
Neu's report is based on a study that included more than 30 interviews with local officials and residents, as well as on-site project visits in the three regions funded by the Regional Cities Initiative. Where a study released last year focused on preliminary economic impacts, the 2018 study focuses more on the collaborative nature and diversity of projects selected. The study was commissioned by the Metro Chamber Alliance.
The Regional Cities Initiative is a statewide program initiated in 2014, during which regions throughout the state competed for funding for quality-of-life projects in their regions. The northeast, north central and southwest regions of Indiana received $42 million each in state money as part of the program.
In northeast Indiana, the study highlights Angola's Thunder Ice Arena and the Manchester Early Learning Center in North Manchester as examples of diverse projects funded by the state program. The Thunder Ice Arena was an $18.9 million Trine University project and was awarded $2.8 million by the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority in 2016.
The Manchester Early Learning Center was the first Wabash County project to receive Regional Cities funding with $520,000 awarded in September 2016. According to its website, the Early Learning Center provides “quality care and developmentally appropriate learning experiences for children, infants through 12 years of age.”
“While some of these projects may seem disconnected at the surface level, they were strategically chosen to address key challenges or leverage key assets and help support other area projects,” the report said.
It's important to note that Neu's report is a quality-of-life assessment based on anecdotal interviews and on-site visits, said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne. What people value is subjective.
“If I like going to the Baer Field Speedway, that has very different cultural value than going to the Philharmonic,” Blakeman said. “It's hard to attach which is the superior version. I don't think there is one. Quality of life becomes a little ambiguous because it's a very subjective version of what someone enjoys.”
There's value in knowing that community leaders feel good about the Regional Cities Initiative, Blakeman said.
“That dynamic continues when you look at Allen County versus other rural counties,” Blakeman said. “This allows everybody to perceive there's a common destiny and that one does not have to come at the expense of the other.
“There is a finite pool of money, but there's the thought that we need to be working together to create regional quality of life.”
That's especially important, Blakeman said, when legislators consider whether to continue funding this program or support similar ones in the future.
“There are some legislators who are going to say, 'Show me the numbers. Are we getting a measurable return?'” Blakeman said. “Then the other question is how to measure quality-of-life assets outside of direct economic impact.”
The Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority is tasked with dispersing money awarded to the area as part of the Regional Cities Initiative. The agency – also called the RDA – has funded projects throughout the 11-county region.
John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, agrees with Neu's findings.
“My observation going through the process was how it brought the region together,” Sampson said. “There was so much excitement by the communities around pitching their projects to the RDA. It wasn't about competing against a neighboring community, it was about selling what was important to them.”
Sampson said many of the communities were trying to fund projects they've always wanted to do. The Regional Cities Initiative gave them the boost to make those projects a reality.
“To the extent that (the Regional Cities Initiative) has benefited us, we think that it was very worthwhile and we're hopeful that other communities will share in that benefit,” Sampson said.
But at least one of the program's critics has yet to be swayed.
“This is by and for business, that's historically what it's been,” Tom Lewandowski, executive director of The Workers' Project, said Thursday.
Lewandowski said he hasn't followed the studies and reports but said programs like the Regional Cities Initiative often leave workers out in the cold. Fixing that would require wholesale changes in how the state approaches economic development, Lewandowski said.
“This is a fundamental change in the way workers and taxpayers are represented,” Lewandowski said. “Most workers and taxpayers are estranged from what's called economic development now.”