Stellar communities see substantial economic investments, study shows

April 5th, 2018

By Joseph Slacian | The Paper of Wabash County

An evaluation by the Sagamore Institute of the Stellar Communities Program, shows that Indiana communities, either receiving a Stellar designation or being named a program finalist, have achieved substantial economic investments and transformative quality of place improvements.

Launched in 2011, the Stellar Communities Program is a multi-year, multi-million dollar investment initiative led by the Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), which is overseen by Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch. The program works with communities to develop their strategic community investment plans, promote local and regional partnerships and implement comprehensive solutions to challenges facing Indiana’s rural communities.

According to Sagamore Institute’s 2017 Stellar Communities Program annual impact report, communities that have received a Stellar designation or been named a program finalist have positively built upon the state’s investments. The funding from the state agencies came in the form of grants, low-interest loans, and tax credits. This funding has spurred additional private investment and allowed communities to engage in a strategic investment planning process.

“Sagamore’s report shows that OCRA is positively impacting our rural communities and taking the necessary steps to ensure they are thriving,” Crouch said. “OCRA and state partners have invested $100 million in rural communities, which has been matched by more than $135 million in community partner contributions to improve quality of life.”

The City of Wabash received the designation in 2014, and is in its final year of the program.

Keith Gillenwater, President and CEO of Grow Wabash County, said he’s not surprised by the study’s finding.

“I think Stellar has been a great program and experience for Wabash,” he told The Paper of Wabash County. “The program has allowed us to make great improvements in the city thus far, and this year we will see even more evidence of that. I’m grateful to the city administration for having faith in applying for it and then seeing it through once we received the designation.

“It also allowed us to tackle a number of projects that would have taken us years to get done that we were able to push into a four-year window, and see the impact of our efforts immediately.”

In addition to state funds, there has been substantial private investment in the city as well, Gillenwater noted.

“The Eagles/Honeywell (rehabilitation project), the private owners who undertook facades, the Rock City Lofts, the donors to the Inclusive Playground have all invested their money into our community to make it better.”

The Sagamore Report findings also support OCRA’s decision to move towards a new regional approach for Stellar beginning in 2018. One of the policy recommendations is to help engage communities on a regional scale. The report notes the critical importance of local and regional alliances and partnerships with individuals, agencies and organizations.

“Stellar is one of the smartest solutions to rural development in the nation. It is built on the idea that local leaders have the best ideas. The state is simply venture capital in rural innovation,” stated Jay Hein, President of Sagamore Institute. “The results take shape in better communities, growing economies, and higher expectations.”

The report also recommends more training be available after communities receive the designation to ensure they have the skills needed to manage their projects and plan for the future. To accomplish this, OCRA has added Ball State University and Purdue University to the partners for the Stellar Communities Program.

Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute will assist communities in the planning stages with project alignment and data analytics. Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development will then assist communities post-designation with long-term sustainability efforts and project implementation.

“It’s encouraging to see the Sagamore Institute’s findings reaffirm why regionalism will benefit Indiana communities,” said Jodi Golden, Executive Director of OCRA. “I’m excited to work with our university partners to provide the necessary sustainability training to our future regions.”