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Regional Cities Initiative spurs community growth in cities across Indiana

March 7th, 2017

By Roger Schneider for Goshen City News | Indiana Economic Digest

The lights outside the Goshen Theater glow each night along downtown’s Main Street and combine with marquee lettering to remind passers-by that history is alive and well inside.

The theater, built in 1907, has a nonprofit group caring for it now. Its heyday has passed and some of the theater’s infrastructure is worn and in need of an update.

The Goshen Theater Inc. group intends to use funds provided by Indiana's Regional Cities Initiative program to upgrade electrical wiring and amenities to make the facility more suitable to host entertainment and community events.

“We really want to make sure it is a functional facility,” said David Daugherty, president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce and theater board member.

The theater renovation is just one of more than a dozen Regional Cities projects approved by the Northern Indiana Regional Development Authority.

According to Regina Emberton, president and CEO of the Michiana Partnership, the umbrella group overseeing Regional Cities projects in the north-central region, no more than 20 percent of a project’s funding can come from Regional Cities money and those funds must be matched from government sources.

“(Regional Cities) was an effort to jump-start private investment into quality-of-life projects,” she said.

About Regional Cities

Launched two years ago this month, the Regional Cities Initiative was spearheaded by then-Gov. Mike Pence as a way to help “communities across Indiana come together to transform their regions into national-recognized destinations to live, work and play,” according to the project’s website.

The Northern Indiana Regional Development Authority is one of three such groups in Indiana that is overseeing the disbursement of $42 million each in Regional Cities funds. The other regional groups cover the southwest and northeast portions of the state.

Once OK'd by the regional boards, the projects are sent to the Indiana Economic Development Corp. for its approval.

Of the 18 north-central region projects, six have been approved by the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

Of the 23 projects in the northeast region projects, 11 have been approved.

Of the 14 southwest region projects, seven have been approved.

The goal of the Regional Cities Initiative is to use state dollars to spur investment in quality-of-life enhancements. Those projects are important for keeping and attracting residents and building a climate of community pride across the state, according to officials interviewed.

Northeastern projects

One of the larger allocations of regional cities money in the northeast region is for a new Michiana Event Center, or MEC.

The new event center will receive $3.8 million in funding to support the creation of a building that can be divided to host two events at once and an adjacent arena that will seat 3,600 people.

The center is expected to boost tourism in the already popular town of Shipshewana, according to Beth Thornburg, executive director of the Shipshewana/LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The target market for Shipshewana tourism is a triangle from Chicago, to Indianapolis to Detroit, according to Thornburg. But people stop by from around the globe to take in the Amish-based lifestyle.

The MEC is owned by a group of investors, some of whom are Amish. Horses are central to their lifestyle, so the new center is expected to hold equine events, perhaps even rodeos, according to one investor, Jake Kuhns.

The new MEC will be across the road from the Shipshewana Flea Market, the largest flea market in the Midwest; it draws thousands of visitors on peak days during the summer. The addition of the MEC’s multi-use event center and arena will enhance the tourist draw to the small town of 650 people, according to Thornburg.

“We don’t have anything like that here,” she said. “The largest seating facility we have now is the Shipshewana Event Center and they get 1,250 in there.”

Thornburg said she believes the Regional Cities investment in the MEC will meet those quality-of-life goals as well as enhance the local economy.

Southwestern projects

Regional Cities projects anticipated to begin by the end of the year in the southwestern region include several in Evansville: upgrades to Regional Airport, expansion of the YMCA and the construction of a downtown medical education complex.

The education center will serve students attending Indiana University's School of Dentistry and School of Medicine as well as University of Evansville and University of Southern Indiana students.

Phase one of work on the Signature School in Evansville, a public charter school ranked highly in the state and country, was completed last year just before classes started. The school received $2.5 million in grant funding.

"The Regional Cities Initiative allowed them to expand," said Greg Wathen, president and CEO of the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana. "It was an expansion of the science center. It gave them more laboratory and classroom space."

The Warrick Wellness Trail project is also nearing completion. Wathen said the initiative is helping the medical campus add trails around the center and update basic infrastructure.

Since signing the Regional Cities Initiative agreement with the state in April 2016, Wathen said projects in the region have made advancements at a quick pace.

"We're on target with where we thought we'd be," Wathen said. "We offered to do fewer projects. We wanted to do larger projects and those that would be truly transformational."

The Goshen Theater project may end up using fewer Regional Cities dollars. The initial grant was for $1.8 million based on the original $9 million renovation plan. Since that plan has been halved.

According to Gina Leichty, president of the theater board, phase one will be $4.2 million. Leichty said she will be talking to the North Central RDA in the coming weeks to see what that means for the original $1.8 million grant.

“We are looking at the need to do that simply because of the time frame we are on,” Daugherty said.

All documents, funding and contracts must be turned into the regional development corporations by June 15 and the Goshen project has yet to kick off its public funding drive. That drive will begin soon, Daugherty said, noting that a gala at the theater is scheduled for March 11.

“We are scaling back some,” Daugherty said. “But our public campaign is still $2.5 million.”

The theater group is working with the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, which is expected to contribute $1 million toward the needed matching funds and the city of Goshen may add almost as much, according to Daugherty.