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1/6/2019 12:52:00 PM
Hoosier governor says he hopes to see a Regional Cities 'Round 2'

Mark Bennett, Tribune-Star

People determined to live near an ocean, mountain or tropic warmth probably won’t consider job offers in Terre Haute, Muncie, Fort Wayne or any other Indiana city.

Other folks might. If they see good reasons to live as a Hoosier. That means good-paying jobs, high-caliber schools, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods and lively cultural, recreational and entertainment options for workers and their families. Most employers capable of offering such jobs want those same qualities in a community where they might set up operations.

Small towns and rural areas around those cities matter, too. Some people prefer a house in the countryside, where they can fish, hunt, hike or just move at a slower pace, yet still have a short drive to work and access to activities and amenities in a metro setting. 

Coordination between a city and the surrounding smaller towns and counties can give a strength-in-numbers boost to civic improvement projects, drawing private investments alongside public funds.

At least, that’s the theory behind the “regional cities” economic development concept. The state of Indiana pumped $126 million from tax amnesty revenues into the Regional Cities Initiative under former Gov. Mike Pence. The program allowed Hoosier regions to compete for one of three $42-million grants. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. awarded the grants to the Northeast (Fort Wayne), North-Central (South Bend) and Southwest regions in 2015. A study last fall by Ball State University shows better-than-expected results.

Projects underway in those regions have an overall investment of $1.2 billion, and nearly 70 percent (or $835.5 million) comes from private sources, the Ball State study calculated. As for Indiana’s $126 million in Regional Cities Initiative funds, the state has recouped 43 percent of it ($54.7 million) through additional tax revenue. The quality-of-life enhancements also are expected to attract 7,960 new residents by 2026.

Of course, there are other regions in Indiana, areas surrounding Terre Haute, Muncie, Kokomo, Jeffersonville, Lafayette, Gary and others. Doesn’t a “Round 2” for Regional Cities Initiative make sense, especially in a state that struggles to compete with the nation’s coasts and Southwest for workers?

Governor Eric Holcomb seems supportive of regional cities funding that lures private investment in rebuilding city downtown districts and amenities tied to historic structures and natural resources. Holcomb favors a second round of state funding, similar to the 2015 commitment, sometime in the future, although that may not be soon. For now, smaller outlays are likely, such as $1.5 million recently awarded to the Wabash River Region (Vigo, Knox and Sullivan counties) for projects such as Terre Haute’s Turn to the River.

“[The Regional Cities Initiative] may be a little different in scope for the time being,” Holcomb said in an interview last month in his Statehouse office. “But I do hope we’re able to realize another truly ‘Round 2’ down the road at some point.”

Pence’s plan, approved with some difficulty by the Indiana General Assembly, tapped into tax amnesty funds for the 2015 effort. Regional Cities proved to one of the future vice president’s few progressive ideas, along with his too slowly delivered but wise HIP 2.0 health care program. Nine years earlier, another former governor, Mitch Daniels, used tax amnesty funds in 2006 to relay $156 million in deferred payments to Indiana’s public schools.

“There was some space in between the two that allowed” those tax amnesty funds to build up, Holcomb said.

“So, if you’re looking to go back to the same well, then there needs to be some time and space,” he added. “However, we shouldn’t view this as hitting ‘pause’ on regional development. We need to continue to move forward, which Terre Haute is, and which the state of Indiana is, both in Vigo County, Sullivan County, Knox County — that Wabash [River] region — as we are in Delaware County over in Muncie. And that’s why we invested in making sure the research and study that was going on in both those regions we would cover financially.

“That was to encourage that continued regional not-just-thinking but acting,” Holcomb said.

His administration and the IEDC awarded grants of $1.5 million each to the Wabash River and East Central regions for quality-of-life projects’ preparation and planning. Both regions competed for the 2015 grants, without success.

The six-county region surrounding Muncie aims to revitalize its downtown, improve housing and expand the trail system. The Wabash River region has plans for a new visitors center at the William Henry Harrison Presidential Mansion and upgraded housing along the riverfront in Vincennes, as well as Terre Haute’s Turn to the River path, connecting downtown to the Wabash. The commission allotted $700,000 of the grant for Turn to the River.

The Northwest Region (Gary and Michigan City) also sought the initial Regional Cities grants, unsuccessfully. Since then, the state committed $6 million a year for the next 30 years to help fund double-tracking of the South Shore commuter rail line between Gary and Michigan City, the Northwest Times of Indiana reported.

The rest of Indiana is warming up to regional development, Holcomb believes. He called it a “statewide tutorial on something I see more and more agreement on as the months and years unfold.” 

Even some skeptics are paying attention. 

“Other counties and regions are stepping forward and saying, ‘Hey, that Regional Cities Initiative that I poo-pooed? That was a good idea and seems to be working,’” the governor said.

The 2015 funding helped fill financial gaps in public-private projects already planned in the Northeast Region, said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne. The Northeast, Southwest and North Central regions had begun to embrace the regional development concept, giving those areas an advantage in the initiative three years ago.

In the Fort Wayne region’s case, the Regional Cities grant allowed the nearby town of Bluffton to renovate its historic Clyde Theatre, Angola to build Thunder Ice Arena (home to the Trine University men’s and women’s hockey teams) and an early learning center in North Manchester.

Quality of life is “more than ‘Do they have low taxes and good sewer services?’ That’s kind of expected,” Blakeman said.

Unique elements of Bluffton help Fort Wayne, and vice versa. “Those vibrant, vital downtowns have benefits to the communities around them,” Blakeman said.

Legislators oversee significant expenditures, including any “Round 2” of the Regional Cities Initiative. The 2019 session of the General Assembly began Thursday, and the state has multiple, necessary high priorities, Blakeman pointed out, such as improved teacher pay, prevention and treatment for opioid addicted Hoosiers, and upgrading infrastructure. The Regional Cities expenditures tend to be smaller, comparatively. Still, lawmakers rightly want to know whether the dollars spent benefit state and its residents.

“If we look at the value it’s provided Northeast Indiana, I would say the answer is yes,” Blakeman said.

Like his predecessor, Holcomb can keep regional cities funding among the top priorities. Indiana’s aging urban areas — especially traditional manufacturing towns like Terre Haute, Muncie, Kokomo, Gary and Michigan City — need the investment.

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR


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