Region prepares to jockey for state funding

July 3rd, 2015

News Coverage:

Region prepares to jockey for state funding

Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2015 11:00 pm

By Aimee Ambrose

Northeast Indiana is champing at the bit, ready to burst out of the gate in the race to create a solid regional identity.

Area leaders worked to meet the original Regional Cities Initiative deadline of July 1 for proposal submissions but, with the state extending the deadline to Aug. 31, the northeast Indiana region is remaining mum on which projects are topping the list until the presentation is due.

As the state puts a purse up to entice new region-building projects statewide, northeast Indiana’s team intends to make a bold dash to set it apart as a lead contender for the millions to be awarded to two Regional Development Authorities.

“Indianapolis will know northeast Indiana is ready to rock and roll,” said Tim Ehlerding, head of Wells County Economic Development.

The initiative, led by the Indiana Economic Development Corp., is an effort to generate new economic development across the state. Neighboring counties and cities can form a regional development authority in order to collaborate more closely on building up a region as a whole in order to help grow the state’s population.

“This gives us an opportunity to widen our view a little bit,” said Scott Glaze, CEO of Fort Wayne Metals. “I think our area has to think beyond what we thought in the past decades. We have to move out and dream a little bit.”

Glaze and Ehlerding were among the members of a steering committee that led development of northeast Indiana’s RDA application since last December. The group included members from public, private and academic sectors to represent the 11 counties in the region – Allen, Adams, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley.

The IEDC, through a new state law this year, will get more involved in regional development by awarding $84 million from a state fund to RDAs with the most compelling and exciting projects. The plans need to improve quality of life in such a way that they attract new residents and employers to the region, according to the IEDC’s website.

The funds are expected to be broken down as matching grants of $42 million to two RDAs. Each regional group would receive $21 million over the next two years.

Northeast Indiana’s RDA assembled a list of about 50 projects which will need to be narrowed down for the proposal.

The ideas are grouped into four categories that involve trails and riverfronts, downtown and community developments, arts and culture and education and industry, said Ellen Cutter, director of the Community Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“We need to have a clear and focused vision of what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Cutter, a project manager who helped form the local RDA. “There are many projects that exist within our 11-county footprint that are germane to economic development and assisting businesses.”

In order to narrow down which projects lean more toward traditional economic development and which have the direct quality-of-place impact the IEDC wants, each project in a group had to have a dual focus in at least one of the other categories, she said.

With an extended deadline, northeast Indiana will use the extra time to refine and tweak the proposal.

“We’re building a really cool dynamic,” Ehlerding said. “There’s going to be a wide array of projects.”

They are expected to include marquee ideas – ones intended to have a “wow!” factor – that serve as tent poles for related projects.

He believes the region would have made the original deadline thanks to ground work laid early on by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Greater Fort Wayne Inc., as well as Fourth Economy Consulting, a firm hired to advise on the process.

How the presentation will be made, he doesn’t know, but he expects northeast Indiana to go big.

“I think when we deliver our proposal, Indianapolis will know that we’re there,” he said.

Greater Fort Wayne and Regional Partnership staff are working out those details, said John Urbahns, a GFW executive.

The region will get to make the presentation following a routine submission of the application and a site visit by the IEDC, he said.

Meanwhile, the steering committee will disband now that a five-member board is in place to lead the new RDA, as required by law. State law also says the board cannot include elected officials or local government employees.

Brad Bishop of OrthoWorx in Warsaw, Andrew Briggs of Bank of Geneva in Geneva, Gene Donaghy of Northeastern REMC in Columbia City, Bob Marshall of Campbell & Fetter Bank in Kendallville and Jeff Turner of Metal Technologies in Auburn were elected to the board by the Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Caucus of Northeast Indiana in late June.

The fact none of the five is from Allen County is significant, Urbahns said.

“This sends a clear message that Allen County is being regional and looking at it from a broader perspective than people thought,” Urbahns said.

Fort Wayne is the centerpiece of the RDA, and the aim is to make the city successful to benefit both it and the surrounding counties and communities.

“I think there is private money out there when you can make a compelling economic case for investment,” Glaze said. “There are a lot of people who would love to invest in our region again.”

He sees the regional city process as a way to take stock of what the region has to offer and how to use that to push forward.

He also believes northeast Indiana is farther along in the Regional Cities process than other regions, and he credits the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership for taking the reins early on and pulling ahead of the pack.