Getting READI: Officials discuss development ideas

Local leaders are discussing what initiatives could be proposed to receive up to $50 million from the state in economic development grant funding for the region.

About 30 individuals from the city and county gathered Wednesday at The Commons to discuss priorities and possible projects that might be included in a Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) application.

The South Central Indiana Talent Region, one of several READI applicants, is led by the Southern Indiana Housing and Community Development Corp. and includes Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, as well as Edinburgh.

“We have an opportunity to make some transformational investments in our community — and we have the opportunity to get somebody else to pay for part of that,” said Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop. “So it’s something that we don’t want to take lightly.”

Those present at the brainstorming workshop included Columbus and Bartholomew County officials, officials from Hope and Edinburgh, business leaders, higher education representatives and individuals from community organizations such as the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

According to the Indiana Economic Development Corp, READI will dedicate $500 million in state appropriations to “promote strategic investments that will make Indiana a magnet for talent and economic growth.”

Counties, cities and towns are partnering together as regions to apply for these funds. These regions are expected to attracted a minimum 4:1 match, including a required 1:1 match from local public funding. The IEDC will award up to $50 million per region.

At Wednesday’s workshop, participants split into groups and were asked to brainstorm ideas — local priorities at first, then county-wide priorities and then possible projects that might help meet these needs.

The session was coordinated by a team from HWC Engineering, with Partner and Director of Planning Cory Whitesell taking the lead. HWC has been hired to “help us maneuver through this process,” Lienhoop said.

Since there have been 18 applications from regions across Indiana and a total of $500 million has been allocated to READI, not every region will get the maximum level of $50 million, Whitesell said.

“In all likelihood, they will probably merge a couple of regions together,” he added. “They could give less money to regions. … I tell you that to make sure everyone understands — this is a little bit of a competition.”

The projects have to “drive regional success,” not just local development, and the application should tell a compelling story about how the region is working together for common goals, Whitesell said.

In brainstorming main county-wide priorities, local leaders stated the following values, which Whitesell made note of on a whiteboard — talent attraction, housing, the airpark campus, entrepreneurship, education, economic vitality, quality of place, culture, recreation, transportation and downtown areas.

“After sitting through these conversations in all three counties, the top-line issues are the same,” Whitesell said. “…Wherever each community’s at on that spectrum is different.”

When it came time to discuss potential projects, leaders proposed ideas such as a regional youth sports program, a proving ground, broadband, attracting developers, downtown development, a tri-county sports center, creating cultural attractions for visitors and focusing on regional collaboration.

They also discussed the possibility of leveraging existing initiatives in their application, including the riverfront project and the new Propeller makerspace at the Airpark campus.

Whitesell told leaders that Wednesday’s meeting was “not the end of the conversation.”

“What we have to do is take these ideas, and we’ve got to figure out, ‘Where is there alignment between the three-county region?’” he said. “That’s the next challenge for our group.”

Leaders will be sent a survey so they could provide more information about different ideas, and they’re also looking for volunteers to help with conversations about the tri-county region. More meetings will be held in the future, and a website will be launched soon to promote themes and priorities, Whitesell said.

According to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, regions are expected to further talent attraction, retention and development by creating “data-driven, actionable and sustainable development plans that outline strategies focused on improving the quality of place, quality of life and quality of opportunity within their communities.”

Regions have until Aug. 31 to submit development plans, which will be made available to the public. The state economic development corporation board will form a review committee to evaluate the plans, and the committee will host a series of review meetings that are open to the public. The state will finalize its funding decisions toward the end of this year.

When making their plans, local and regional officials will likely have to do some long-term thinking. In discussing county priorities, Greater Columbus Indiana Economic Development Corp. President Jason Hester said that they need to think about the economic vitality “of today and the future.”

Whitesell agreed that a “future-proof strategy” is important and noted that planning has to be an ongoing process, as the world is constantly changing.

“Communities that did regional planning 24 months ago — you know, that planning is now different because of what has happened over some of the last 18 months,” he said. “… What your strategy was 10 years, 12 years ago has now been through the housing crisis in the 2000s. It’s now been through the pandemic. The world is very, very different.”

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There will be a follow-up meeting from 2 to 4 p.m. on July 21 at Toyota Material Handling to meet with representatives from other counties and Edinburgh.

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More information about READI grants is available at iedc.in.gov/program/indiana-readi/home.

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