The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, December 23, 2015 3:29 am

Pence pleased with grant victory

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Gov. Mike Pence was in town Tuesday to celebrate the region’s winning entry in the Regional Cities Initiative sweepstakes. 

"Congratulations on a truly extraordinary proposal," he told the assembled crowd, which included mayors and economic development officials from throughout the 11-county region. 

"Let me say with great confidence, I know northeast Indiana will reach 1 million" residents, Pence said, echoing the theme of the ­region’s grant submission. "Hoosiers always under-promise and overperform."

Northeast Indiana soon will receive one of three $42 million grants, pending additional funding approval from the General Assembly. Legislators last spring designated $84 million to cover two grants. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. last week announced that three regional proposal deserve to be funded.

Pence and a delegation of state and IEDC officials visited all three winning regions in a two-day blitz that ended Tuesday afternoon in Fort Wayne. The event was at Empyrean Events and Catering on the 26th floor of the PNC Bank building.

Less than an hour after the celebration ended, the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority’s board met to start gearing up to handle an expected onslaught of funding applications.

Numerous details remain unresolved for the first-time grant program. But perhaps the most significant one is that the five-member board doesn’t know whether IEDC rules will allow them to use a portion of the expected $42 million grant to cover the costs of administering the money.

Alan Tio, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s executive vice president, and John Stafford, a consultant who also worked on the grant proposal, said some assistance can be provided by the Regional Partnership’s staff. But some work will have to be contracted out, including legal and accounting.

Tio and Stafford, who assist the authority’s board, said it’s too soon to know how much administrative work will be needed to support the board’s mission of awarding funding to qualified applicants.

Among the projects included in the region’s bid were a $72.5 million re­gion­al trails network, a $68.7 million riverfront de­vel­op­ment in Fort Wayne, a $38 million IPFW Center for Leadership, a $23.3 million residential and mixed-use project in Warsaw, a $20 million redevelopment of The Landing in downtown Fort Wayne, a $10 million vice presidential museum at Huntington University, a $9.9 million lofts project in Wabash and a $7.3 million downtown lofts and co-working space project in Decatur. 

Stafford said after the meeting that he’s unsure which approach he prefers. If the board can use grant money to pay for administrative costs, staff won’t have to do a second round of requests for financial support from private and public organizations. Such donations covered the costs of preparing the region’s 200-plus page grant submission to the state. 

But if administrative costs can be paid with Regional Cities funding, that’s less money available for worthy projects, he said.

The region’s proposal included 70 projects, of which 38 were earmarked for implementation in the first two years. 

State guidelines call for projects to be funded with 20 percent state grant money, 20 percent local government funds and 60 percent private investment. 

Board members discussed pitfalls they might encounter as they review applications for funding, including a situation where a project is given provisional approval but lags in addressing remaining requirements. 

Bob Marshall, one of the board members, suggested setting an expiration for such situations so that money isn’t committed to projects that end up being stalled for two years or more while other projects are waiting to move forward.

They also discussed setting deadlines and reviewing applications in batches rather than one at a time.

Tio suggested that the board consider whether it wants staff to help applicants who are close but not fully ready to submit a funding request. He also suggested that the board consider requiring an independent review of applicants’ return-on-investment projections. 

Before the meeting, Regional Development Authority board members attended the earlier festivities, which included comments from numerous local and state officials. 

John Sampson, president of the Regional Partnership, read the IEDC’s comments on northeast Indiana’s grant application. State officials said it’s very likely that implementing the plan will help the area attract young, talented workers.

Cultivating a talented workforce is widely considered crucial for attracting high-paying employers.

John Thompson, CEO of Thompson Distribution, led the IEDC’s review of Regional Cities’ grant applications. He said northeast Indiana’s bid reflected the region’s teamwork approach.

"That collaboration is the true secret sauce," he added.

Pence acknowledged that city and county officials ­are not necessarily collaborative by nature.

"The home of ‘Hoosiers,’ single-class basketball," he said of Indiana. "We generally like to compete across county lines."

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