Wabash County and its smaller towns are focused on improving communities, officials say
By Kailtin Gerbby for the Wabash Plain Dealer | Indiana Economic Digest
Community representatives from Lagro, Roann, LaFontaine, North Manchester, Wabash City and Wabash County gathered in the Honeywell Center on Wednesday for the second annual State of Our Communities address.
The event is a local spin on the State of the Union in which community leaders come together to offer a summary of their accomplishments of the previous year and to recognize challenges or obstacles they are currently facing and what lies ahead.
Keith Gillenwater, executive director of Grow Wabash County, gave opening remarks that reflected on the nearly two years Grow Wabash County has been in existence. He said the transition from a separate chamber of commerce and economic development group to a single entity working for the city happened in mid-2017 and has yielded over $40 million in local investment in the last year alone.
Gillenwater said the group had a hand in the multi-million dollar investment of 10x Engineering Materials with the opening of an operations center in Wabash.
Gillenwater and Mayor Scott Long reflected on 2018 as a year of forming relationships, naming their two week trip to Japan and China as a main proponent in building those relationships.
In addition, he said Grow Wabash is working on building relationships to support the future workforce in the county. incubatoredu is an entrepreneurship program for high school students where they can develop their own product or service that was recently introduced to Wabash high schools.
Upcoming in April is a pitch competition between entrepreneurial students and their products and/or services for prizes at the Honeywell Center. In addition, there is a similar regional pitch competition between 10 teams, seven of which will be comprised of Wabash students.
County Commissioner Barry Eppley said the county is looking for ways to capture funding for a new jail. Eppley said a study was done in 2009 that told commissioners that a new jail was not necessary, and that the population was “over capacity but perhaps manageable.” The 72-bed facility recently recorded an inmate population as high as 172, Eppley said. Another study in 2017 suggested that a new jail facility be built for Wabash County, but he said the funding was its own issue. According to Eppley, locating local funding from county income taxes for the $26 million to $32 million facility was not feasible at the time, noting the county’s continual population decline.
“Actually to date, we’re not aware of a funding option that will support a new jail facility for Wabash County,” he said.
He said a few weeks ago, Sheriff Ryan Baker arranged a meeting between judicial officials and commissioners to discuss a future plan for the construction of a jail facility. Eppley said they hope to approach the state to request funding for a facility in the future.
Kristie Bone, clerk treasurer of Lagro, said their town has been able to add three new signs in addition to the recent grant and donation-funded improvements made to public spaces. Lagro’s roads and sidewalks have been repaved, a fire pit has been added to a public park along with a basketball court and a fence around the park.
Bone said the improvements to the town have drawn over 100 families to public events, such as their last free movie night in the park. She said 110 families participates in the free movie night, and other improvements are on their way to the town too. She said there are “rumors” of restaurants, coffee shops, and bed and breakfasts coming to downtown Lagro in the future. She said the projects that have been and will be accomplished are thanks to residents’ dedication to the town and donations from individuals and local organizations.
LaFontaine Clerk Treasurer Diana Heath said their town has seen some welcome improvements to their downtown as well, including a veteran’s mural and the repurposing of the old elementary school as a place for events. While they’ve struggled with population decline, as has the rest of the county, she said some residents have recently returned to LaFontaine to purchase homes for renovation, improving the overall look of the town.
Roann Clerk Treasurer Bob Ferguson said in 18 months, Roann has been awarded over $1 million in grant money for various projects. He said the town was approved for funding to repave the entire town of Roann, something he was hesitant to ask for on his grant application that has been a “godsend” to the town.
Roann has also added a new sign leading into the town on Ind. 15/16, he said. Ferguson said Roann is most proud of the downtown area, noting there are “no empty storefronts,” and that they were recently accepted into Indiana’s Main Street program, operated by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs.
North Manchester Town Council President Chalmer Tobias spoke at the event on North Manchester’s successes and struggles of 2018. He said they dealt with the “sudden and unexpected” loss of Manchester Metals. He said Town Manager Adam Penrod organized a job fair for the employees who lost their jobs due to the plant closing, and said 33 of them were able to find work from that fair.
Manchester is also working on a single family housing development, which will begin construction this summer. The development will consist of around 20 single family homes ranging from $150,000 to $250,000. The town also plans on making the switch to LED lighting this year to save money. Mayor Long said the town saved around $10,000 in 2018 when they made the switch to LED bulbs and energy efficient lighting, and Tobias said he hopes the switch will have the same effect.
Perhaps the most anticipated project for North Manchester is the improvement of County Road 1100 North, he said. Tobias said the road has been the source of many complaints over the years, being the main truck route to North Manchester’s industrial park, and they are working with the county commissioners to make improvements.
Last to speak was Mayor Long, who reiterated Gillenwater’s previous statements on building relationships as the theme for 2018. Looking ahead to 2019, he provided a rendering of a possible railroad overpass on East Street.
In December, Wabash was awarded over $8.5 million from Indiana’s Local TRAX Rail Overpass Program for either an overpass or underpass to allow emergency personnel to access routes during train breakdowns. He said during his time in office, there have been at least 18 breakdowns that have blocked the main roads through downtown Wabash, including main routes for emergency services.
In the rendering, he displayed an overhead view of the possible East Street location for the overpass and what it would look like if homes remained in the area after the project’s completion.
“Those residents would be looking out their front window at a stone wall about 25-foot high,” he said.
Long then addressed the opioid crisis in Indiana. He said he was asked last year by Indiana University President Michael McRobbie to join the IU Grant Challenge committee focused on addiction as a representative of rural communities. The committee is designed to provide a greater knowledge on the crisis through research, which can later lead to laws and policy changes, according to the university’s mission statement on the group.
Like North Manchester, Long is also working on solving the local housing problem. He said there’s a possibility of a housing development on the southside of the city in addition to the former Parkview Wabash Hospital location as a future site for additional housing.
He also said 2018 was about saving money. He said Wabash City government was able to save approximately $3 million in unspent budgeted funds, around $493,000 of which was in property tax caps that local governments cannot spend. Long said his administration saved $1 million by making changes to the city’s healthcare and said a total $1.9 million went unspent and was returned to the general fund. Looking ahead to 2019, he said this year will be about “our quest” in finding ways to save more money for taxpayers.