Road to One Million progress pleases group

January 14th, 2019

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

A bit of serendipity could allow the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority to meet its unofficial goal of awarding at least one grant to every county in its coalition. 

Without it, Wells would have been the only one of 11 counties without a share of the region's $42 million grant from the state's Regional Cities Initiative.

That loose end aside, authority officials say they're satisfied with the process they pioneered over three years to review and approve more than $40 million in grants for 24 projects. Total investment for the “transformational” projects, including private funding, amounts to more than $250 million.

The pending Wells County request – toward an outdoor plaza and pavilion/amphitheater – could become the exclamation point at the end of the Regional Development Authority's odyssey. Or the end of this stage, at least.

RDA members are considering additional ventures the board might tackle, including addressing the region's housing issues.

“We hope to be around for quite awhile,” member Gene Donaghy said last week.

How we got here

Northeast Indiana's development authority was formed in 2015 to oversee distribution of a $42 million grant meant to support projects that would make the region more attractive to newcomers and longtime residents. 

The region won the money after economic development officials submitted an ambitious plan with 70 prospective projects totaling $1.5 billion in total public and private investment. The projects were spread across the 11 member counties: Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley.

But it was up to each projects' backers to develop a final blueprint, line up outside funding, and secure property rights and permits before applying for a grant.

Jason Chamlee, lead developer for The Landing and financing expert for The Model Group, last week described what his Cincinnati firm went through to qualify for funding.

“It was a really positive process, a really helpful process, easy, smooth. It was intuitive,” he said during a phone interview. “It went straight to the nuts and bolts of the project.”

The required application was “very thorough” and was followed by an in-person presentation to the board, Chamlee said. The authority's requirements for using the money weren't “rigid or dogmatic” and worked well with other funding sources' rules and regulations, he said.

Chamlee was quick to add that just because the board and staff were great to work with and the process was smooth, it doesn't mean the project and the firm behind it weren't thoroughly vetted before approval.

Authors of The Road to One Million, the 200-plus page proposal northeast Indiana officials gave the state, advocated quick approval and funding for projects to build momentum and excitement.

Michael Galbraith, the full-time staff member who assists the volunteer board, sometimes wonders if that was the best approach, however.

If the region won another $40 million grant, Galbraith said, he might favor freeing up the money in stages – maybe making $20 million available the first year, followed by two years with $10 million budgets.

Even so, Galbraith, whose formal title is The Road to One Million director, doesn't regret the RDA board's process and the results, which he described as transformational.

“We kind of wanted to create that sense of urgency and spirit of competition,” he said about the early days of soliciting submissions. “It really favored the aggressive projects that really pushed.”

But each approval took another chunk of cash from the stash. 

Donaghy, one of five board members, shared a surprising reality the group faced as it considered one eye-popping project after another: “Forty-two million dollars goes faster than you would think $42 million goes.”

Wells submits funding request

Despite the authority's encouragement, however, some projects took longer than others to get to the table. That's the case with Wells County.

Donaghy, a lifelong Wells County resident, said rural areas have a harder time raising money because they have fewer resources to tap, including businesses, residents and nonprofits.

Rules the Indiana Economic Development Corp. established said state money couldn't account for more than 20 percent of any individual project's total cost.

“They needed the 80 percent funding, and they were working very, very hard to get there,” Donaghy said of his friends' and neighbors' efforts, which took four years of focused effort.

Bluffton and Ossian officials last week presented their vision for a project known as Grow Wells County. The authority is expected to vote on the application as early as next month.

An outdoor plaza would be created beside the Wells County Courthouse in downtown Bluffton on a lot occupied by a building damaged in a November 2011 fire. The area would include a mural, green space and seating.

A pavilion/amphitheater, with restrooms and a concessions area, would be built in Ossian's Archbold Wilson Park. The revamped 60-acre park also would include a trail, five acres of wildflowers, a playground, an 18-hole disc golf course and a hillside-sitting area for the amphitheater.

The authority can consider the request because some money previously committed wasn't needed.

A stronger-than-anticipated demand for state tax credits meant The Landing's developers didn't need its full $6.9 million allocation from the RDA. Almost $2.1 million reverted to the RDA's board, whose members thought their bank account had been fully tapped. The board hasn't considered new project requests in months.

Spreading funds across region

Donaghy, who was elected the board's vice president last week, said the RDA's work has been a careful balancing act.

“I think the real concern was (that) Fort Wayne/Allen County is going to get all the money,” he said. “Then again, there are a lot of projects going on (in Fort Wayne) that are regional in nature and will bring people in.”

John Sampson, who advises the board and was a principal architect of the Road to One Million submission, tried to avert territorial concerns by forming truly regional leadership.

The authority board comprises members living or working in Adams, DeKalb, Kosciusko, Noble and Wells counties.

Even so, concerns about favoritism came up.

During a July 2016 board meeting, Sampson stressed that the goal was never to fund all 78 projects in the Road to One Million plan. Instead, he said, board members should guide funding decisions by determining which projects would fuel economic growth, spur population growth and create a national brand for the region.

Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, doesn't have a vote on the board.

At that time, 27 percent of the money already had been awarded. Board members Jeff Turner and Bob Marshall expressed concern at the meeting that the authority would run out of money before every county got at least one project approved.

The issue was settled in favor of Sampson's approach.

The running tally shows 55 percent of funds went to Allen County with the remaining 45 percent shared between the other 10 counties.

Brad Bishop, newly elected board president, was unable to attend last week's meeting. In a follow-up phone interview, he said the economic vitality of Kosciusko County, where he works, depends in large part on the economic conditions in Allen County.

Bishop, who strives to attract orthopedics industry talent to the region, said a thriving Fort Wayne makes his job easier.

Donaghy and Galbraith are also satisfied with the funding distribution breakdown.

Luann Martin, Ossian's town manager, hasn't closely followed the Regional Development Authority's process and decisions and doesn't feel qualified to pass judgment on the board's choices.

The Wells County town with about 3,300 residents doesn't often have projects big enough to qualify for that kind of program, she said. But that recently changed with the dedicated work of several volunteer community leaders that coordinated with Bluffton volunteers to put forth a joint, $2.1 million project. They asked for about $425,000 last week during the board's monthly meeting.

Ossian's piece is a combination pavilion/amphitheater for Ossian's Archbold Wilson Park, the culmination of an on-again, off-again dream that began about 15 years ago, Martin said.

As a taxpayer, Martin is happy that some of her money might be invested in her community.

“Everyone is super, super excited,” she said. “This is a big deal for us.”