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NE Indiana sets fast pace for Regional Cities

May 15th, 2017

By Linda Lipp | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Northeast Indiana did something completely out of character when its Regional Development Authority board took just a year to commit the entire $42 million it had in Regional Cities Initiative funds to local quality-of-place projects.

“We’re coming from behind and we don’t have time to wait around looking for the next better project. I believe the investment of these dollars sooner and quicker will pay off in the long run,” said John Sampson, CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

Indiana in general and northeast Indiana in particular are known for taking a cautious, conservative approach, Sampson noted.

“I’m really delighted that the communities were so aggressive in getting these projects out of the ground as quickly as possible,” he said.

The months of leg work done by local strategic groups and the Regional Partnership in preparing the Road to One Million proposal for Regional Cities funding sped the RDA’s work along, said Bob Marshall, chairman of the RDA board.

“If you’re just looking from the outside in, you’d think, ‘boy they are moving quickly.’ But the only reason we could is because of the enormous amount of prep work done ahead of time,” Marshall said.

Tallying the numbers

The RDA has approved funding for 23 projects - eight in Allen County and 15 in surrounding counties - and that’s due to the leadership provided by Sampson and Road to One Million director Michael Galbraith, as well as the RDA board, he added.

“Its a very strong board, very forward-thinking, very equitable thinking,” Marshall said. “I take a lot of pride in the projects approved, especially when you look at the quality of the projects approved.”

In terms of funding, about 55 percent of Regional Cities monies have been pledged for projects in Fort Wayne and Allen County, and the other 45 percent to projects in nine of the other 10 northeast Indiana counties. Wells was the only one that missed out.

Numerous counties received funds for trails projects, and sports and recreational facilities are planned in several communities.

Whitley County is building an aquatics center, and it got more than $800,000 in Regional Cities money. Jon Myers, of the Whitley County Economic Development Corp., is happy with that.

“I think we got a fair share,” he said. “I can’t complain.”

Myers also believes the amount of money going to Fort Wayne and Allen County projects will benefit neighboring counties.

“It’s part of being in the region. If Allen County has this big riverfront project and I’m only a half hour away, I’m going to take full advantage of it,” he said.

To brag or not to brag

The goal of the Road to One Million plan was to invest in projects that will make the region more attractive to business and residents.

“What we need to do now is brag the heck out of what we’ve done in making commitments this quickly,” Sampson said.

Northeast Indiana came out of the blocks a little bit faster than the state’s other Regional Cities winners because of its requirements for private sector investment, Sampson said. According to RDA data, Regional Cities money will account for about 15.9 percent of the investment in the projects approved, while private funds total 57.6 percent.

“The investment now is putting the seed in the ground. We’re going to reap that, harvest that in the future,” Sampson said.

Fort Wayne City Councilman Russ Jehl is not a believer, however.

“I really don’t feel that Regional Cities funding is imperative for economic growth,” he said.

“Having extra money come from the state, that’s nice, but it also comes from the taxpayer. It’s not like that money comes out of thin air. As far as I’m concerned, local governments are more than capable of providing adequate economic development packages.”

Jehl also questions how heavily subsidized some public/private partnership projects are when all the public contributions are added up. That includes, for example, money from Fort Wayne’s Legacy Fund that has been pledged to the city’s riverfront and landing redevelopments.

“The larger discussion when public dollars are used in private projects… is to keep the public investment as small as possible so that more projects can take place.” he said. “I’m concerned that percentage is so high, so it’s not just gap financing, and it’s limiting the long-term possibilities of economic development because you have so much money tied up in just a couple projects. It’s a fundamental discussion, and it still needs to be figured out.”

Next steps

Although the RDA has committed all the funds it had, there is still a lot to do as the sub-recipient agreements for the projects are finalized, work is done and money is paid out in accordance with the terms set.

“Now is also the time for strategic planning, to think about the next step, because all of us feel strongly that this is just the beginning. There’s much more work to do. We have the momentum built. We want to keep that going and build it bigger,” Marshall said.

One of the components of that will be to come up with a funding mechanism to keep the RDA going, such as a voluntary food and beverage tax. The Indiana Legislature did not take any action in that regard in the last session, “but as long as the governor and the legislators stay interested in it, we have a chance to continue the discussion in a future session,” Sampson said.

As a board, the RDA hasn’t sat down for a discussion of financing options, Marshall said. He believes a first step is to start with the fundamentals of strategic planning: identifying strengths, weakness and goals.

“How do we grow, where do we need to grow and how do we fund that growth?” he said. “Once we get those lined up, then we can begin the process.”