As it is called to act, region works to draft its plan of action

May 3rd, 2015

News Coverage:

As it is called to act, region works to draft its plan of action

Legislature boosts funding for projects aimed at making the state more appealing; now northeast Indiana must show why it deserves some

Posted: Saturday, May 2, 2015 11:00 pm | Updated: 5:00 pm, Sun May 3, 2015.

By Barry Rochford 

When the dust cleared Wednesday at the Statehouse and legislators had approved Indiana’s next two-year budget, contained within it was an $84 million wish that had been granted.

The state will commit that amount to the Indiana Economic Development Corp.’s Regional Cities Initiative, a pilot project that, as envisioned, would help spur population growth as cities and counties come together to craft plans for undertaking a series of quality-of-life projects that would be carried out over several years.

This summer, regions will submit those plans to the IEDC, which is expected to select two to split the $84 million. The regions would be required to match the funding, and potentially leverage it to secure additional private investment in their projects.

Prior to the General Assembly passing the state’s biennial budget, funding for the IEDC’s Regional Cities Initiative was far from certain. In his proposed spending plan, Gov. Mike Pence had set the bar at $84 million, but nearly as soon as the Legislature convened in January, the amount was dropped to $20 million over the two-year period.

There it sat for much of the legislative session, jockeying among other requests for funding. The IEDC mounted a campaign to rally support for more money, and representatives from the region made themselves heard, said John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

“We all knew if we didn’t speak up, no one would know how important this is to northeast Indiana,” he said.

Instead of committing money from the state’s general fund or other dedicated revenue sources to the Regional Cities Initiative, it will be paid for with delinquent taxes collected through an amnesty program run by the state Department of Revenue.

A similar amnesty program that ran from Sept. 15, 2005, to June 15, 2006, collected $244 million in delinquent taxes — far beyond the intended goal of $65 million, stated a 2006 Department of Revenue review.

Eric Shields, the IEDC’s vice president of policy and strategic initiatives, said funding the Regional Cities Initiative through the tax amnesty program made it more palatable to legislators.

“The idea was to find funding that’s not from the general fund,” Shields said.

But to Shields and Sampson, the Regional Cities Initiative isn’t about the money — whether it’s $84 million, $20 million or nothing at all.

“The Regional Cities Initiative is not about the $84 million,” Shields said. “The $84 million will hopefully catalyze and accelerate the execution phase of this.”

“The objective is not the state money,” said Sampson, who deemed the uncertain funding a bit of a distraction as area leaders have been working to identify and select which quality-of-life projects for northeast Indiana to tackle. “The state money is helpful.”

The real objective, both men said, is the plan — the slate of projects that each region will put forward to the state. In northeast Indiana, some of the ideas under consideration include beefed-up regional broadband access and a regional trails system, as well as more community-specific endeavors.

It’s hoped those projects collectively would make northeast Indiana —and the state as a whole — more attractive, to people and employers alike.

“We’re not a destination for talent today, and that’s what we’re trying to change,” Shields said of the state.

Northeast Indiana must speed up its population growth if it wants to keep up, and even thrive, economically, Sampson said.

“If we’re having trouble today finding skilled workers, it’s going to be worse in 10 years” unless something is done, he said.

The Regional Partnership and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. have been leading the Regional Cities Initiative charge in northeast Indiana. They’ve contracted with a Pittsburgh firm, Fourth Economy Consulting, to help create what will be the region’s plan.

The firm is the same one the IEDC employed last year to study other cities across the country — including Denver; Austin, Texas; and Raleigh, North Carolina, among others — that have demonstrated growth in population, gross domestic product and employment. After that study was completed, the IEDC rolled out its Regional Cities Initiative.

Focus-group meetings were held in each northeast Indiana county last month to generate ideas, and Fourth Economy Consulting and members of a regional steering committee have reached out to communities for projects that have been drawn up, but not yet started.

Sampson said this month, those projects and ideas will be vetted to see which of them offer the greatest possible benefit, and then the entire plan will be put out for public comment in June.

The region’s plan won’t be set in stone in the event better ideas come along down the road.

“That plan will have to change as we move along,” Sampson said.

Concurrently, northeast Indiana will need to form a regional development authority, which was made possible by separate legislation passed this year. The RDA will be the agency that actually submits northeast Indiana’s plan to the IEDC.

Counties, cities and towns will be asked to join the northeast Indiana RDA, but they will not be obligated to contribute toward projects, Sampson said. If interlocal agreements are fashioned to move a particular project forward, however, then the entities involved in the agreements would be asked to provide funding.

Shields said the IEDC will begin reviewing Regional Cities Initiative plans July 1. One of the requirements for regions submitting plans is that they indicate which projects they intend to pursue even if they don’t wind up winning a share of the $84 million.

A strategic review committee will study each plan, and the IEDC could announce the regions that will receive funding in the fourth quarter of this year.

“We’re really energized right now,” Shields said of the additional funding for the Regional Cities Initiative. “This is a big win for not only Gov. Pence, but our regions and the state.”

Yet for Sampson, the $84 million is a small victory. Northeast Indiana still must come up with a plan that presents a compelling reason for why it should receive state funding. And the plan must also serve as a springboard for helping make some of the region’s hopes and dreams become a reality — with or without that funding.

“I think there are no guarantees,” he said. “We have to work hard. We have to scrap for this.”