With first grant looming and questions lingering, Regional Cities board won’t please everyone

April 4th, 2016

News Coverage:

April 2, 2016

With first grant looming and questions lingering, Regional Cities board won't please everyone

Kevin Leininger | News-Sentinel

As one of five people responsible for distributing $42 million in Regional Cities funds throughout northeast Indiana, Auburn businessman Jeff Turner knows backers of projects in the 11 eligible counties will be working to influence him and the other members of the new Regional Development Authority.

But as the group prepares to consider its first grant as soon as next week -- $2.8 million for a $40 million residential tower that wasn't even among the 38 projects on the area's initial wish list -- he knows only too well how difficult it will be to distribute that much money wisely and equitably -- and how impossible it will be to keep everybody happy.

Especially when the high-stakes and potentially game-changing program is still a work in progress.

"I won't say it doesn't bother anybody (that the Skyline Tower next to the new Ash Brokerage headquarters as a late addition)," said Turner, senior vice president of Metal Technologies. "We're still negotiating our contract (with the Indiana Economic Development Commission), and I'd liked to have had that a month ago. But we view (Skyline) as illustrative of the kind of project we want, and the vast majority of the money will go to projects on the list."

Lingering uncertainties about how the RDA will do its job prompted a rare joint meeting of city and county councils this week, and if Turner wasn't able to provide specifics it's nevertheless clear some general principles are in place -- with one question crucial to Skylin Tower and other projects still to be answered.

Like many developments, the funding package for the residential tower includes tax credits sold to raise money for construction. But do those credits qualify as private dollars -- or public? It's an arcane but important distinction, because the RDA's goal is to privide 20 percent of a project's financing, with 20 percent from local government and 60 percent from private sources. "We think (tax credits) are private dollars," Turner said.

If the state doesn't agree, the Skyline Tower and other projects dependent on tax credits may not qualify for Regional Cities cash. And in the Skyline's case that could jeopardize the entire project, since the financial package, including the city's pledge, is contingent on the $2.8 million from RDA. Developers want an answer quickly, and Turner hopes to oblige them. "We'd be providing just 6 or 7 percent of that project," he noted -- leaving more of that $42 million for other projects, assuming the Economic Development Authority agreed. The state, Turner added, is not likely to overturn the regional's board's support for projects it considers important, visible and eonomically viable.

If that sounds a bit nebulous, it is -- perhaps unfortunately so. With a state mandate to distribute its funds within two years, Turner said the RDA will put a premiums on "shovel-ready" projects like Skyline and Fort Wayne's riverfront development that have already received other funding commitments. But what about other projects that might be equally worthy but are lagging infundraising?

"We could say, 'We like your idea. Come back (when you have the matching dollars)," but we have 11 counties to serve, and we don't have enough money to fund everything anyway. Our job is to listen to what folks think is best for our cities. We won't keep everyone happy. There will be winners and losers. More than half the projects (funded) will probably be in Allen County. They have more tha half the people (in the region) and they're ready.

"This is not economic development as it has traditionally been understood: the effort to keep or attract jobs. This is about creating what is being called "quality of place" -- physical assets that will bring communities together and, hopefully, keep and attract young people and reverse the region's well-documented "brain drain." As the father of four "millennials" himself, Turner has seen how powerful the lure of supposedly more-vibrant places can be.

That's why, even though the former Republican congressional candidate calls himself a traditionalist, he's devoting himself to a "paradigm change" that would transform northeast Indiana's image from a conservative enclave into a magnet for young people and the investment, jobs and excitement they could generate.

"I'm not feeling any pressure yet," he said. "But we haven't had to make any had decision yet, either.

"But like the region itself, that is about to change, too.