The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, December 02, 2015 11:19 pm

Regional projects in grant bid unveiled

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

The secrecy is over.

After months of discussion, northeast Indiana officials on Tuesday revealed the 70 projects included in the region’s bid for $42 million in state economic development funding. If secured, the grant would be used to help pay for more than $1.5 billion in investment across the 11-county area over the next decade. 

The remaining money would come from sources, including city and county governments, foundations, private businesses and possibly even the state. 

Northeast Indiana’s proposal divides projects into four categories: arts and culture; greenways and blueways; education and industry; and downtowns and community development. Greenways refer to trails. Blueways are rivers and lakes.

They are further divided according to the estimated timeline for completion: two years, three to 10 years and longer term. 

The plan calls for making a fast splash with some shorter-term ventures. 

The 38 projects that would be implemented in the first two years include an $11 million expansion of the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts in Warsaw; Phase 1 of the $68.7 million Fort Wayne riverfront development; construction of a $5.5 million Bluffton Food Innovation Center; and construction of an expanded $2.6 million Manchester Early Learning Center.

The Regional Cities Initiative was designed to fast-track bold projects that improve quality of life, making regions more attractive to talented young workers. 

Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. created the program last year and successfully lobbied for funding during this year’s legislative session. The legislature approved $84 million for the initiative, enough to award two $42 million grants this year.

The IEDC has advised interested parties that the ideal breakdown for funding projects would be 20 percent state government, 20 percent local government and 60 percent private investors.

Various counties have banded together to draft regional submissions representing, for example, northwest Indiana and central Indiana. The IEDC required each area to establish a regional development authority to handle any money received. 

Northeast Indiana’s Regional Development Authority met Tuesday afternoon at the Manchester University College of Pharmacy on Parkview Health’s north campus to review and approve the proposal. The presentation was made by officials with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Community Research Institute at IPFW.

It was followed by a public unveiling and celebration next door at the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation.

Population stagnation is the single biggest threat to northeast Indiana’s economic development, said Alan Tio, a senior vice president with the Regional Partnership.

Projects were selected based on their ability to make the region an attractive place to live. Researchers also calculated expected return on investment for each project.

Organizers adopted the motto "The Road to One Million" to underscore the goal of increasing the region’s population from the current 789,000 to 1 million. 

At the current pace, that threshold would not be reached until 2067, said John Sampson, president and CEO of the Regional Partnership. But with the Regional Cities grant, that timeline could be shortened to 2031, he said.

That’s based on the existing annual population growth of 0.7 percent compared with the desired growth of 2 percent, a rate found in more vibrant regions of the country.

Thriving communities are more attractive to employers looking to invest, officials said. Each new success breeds more success, driving up education levels and wages, they said.

Submissions are due to the state Monday. IEDC officials have said the selection committee will do most of its work in October. The full IEDC board is expected to vote and announce its final decision in December. 

Northeast Indiana officials believe they have a strong proposal because they have worked collaboratively for a decade, adopting the philosophy that they aren’t competing with each other for business investment but rather competing with other regions and other states. 

The northeast Indiana counties that banded together to submit a proposal are Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley. 

A 33-person steering committee with members from each county drafted the list after visiting proposed project sites and reviewing submissions from more than 700 people who participated in an online survey.

The most expensive project is also the most expansive: a $72.5 million regional trail network that would connect all 11 counties.

Even if the northeast Indiana region doesn’t win a Regional Cities grant the first time, it’s possible the region could get another opportunity to make its case for state money.

The program was envisioned as a 10-year, $1 billion initiative, but the money to make that happen has to be set aside in each two-year budget passed by the General Assembly and approved by the governor.

Sampson said the projects have the potential to transform northeast Indiana and need to happen whether or not the region wins state funding.

"There was no pride, no ego, no arrogance involved in this," he said after the meeting about the eight-month process of assembling the 200-plus-page application packet. "This is living up to our region’s potential."


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