Last month, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation made public all 17 regional proposals for the state’s READI Grant program. Since the program was announced, I’ve been dreading this, primarily because I was confident the program would fall short of even modest expectations. The program was hurried through the General Assembly, and the time frame for this type of process was extremely short, just a few months.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
I have now read all 17 proposals, covering all of Indiana’s 92 counties. It is a monumental achievement that 16 of these proposals would’ve been competitive for the Regional Cities Initiative from 2015. Only one proposal failed to lay out the details asked in the guidelines. Of course, that doesn’t mean all 16 should receive funding, simply that the selection committee faces a tough challenge in selecting the nine regions to fund.
It isn’t surprising that the three areas from the Regional Cities Initiative provided very strong proposals, or that the weakest one came from the same region with the worst Regional Cities proposal. Still, there were a number of surprising developments. The Indianapolis Metro region divided itself into four different regions, which allowed for more focus on particulars of each plan. Also, several cities in four counties aligned themselves with different groups. Some of this makes sense, given the geography of each of these counties.
The biggest improvement I saw from 2015 was the proposal by the West Central Region surrounding Terre Haute. The plan was far more developed than the region’s Regional Cities proposal, and did a better job explaining how the projects complemented one another. I’m impressed that the region’s largest private and public university are actively committing resources to the plan.
The region around Kokomo, stretching across six counties from Fulton to Clinton, developed a plan with detailed, project-by-project cost and investment leverage information. It also connected previous investments to this READI grant very clearly. Importantly, it identified long-term challenges and opportunities with great clarity.
The third big surprise was the proposal from the five-county region north of Louisville. In 2015, this region had a good plan that failed to be considered for Regional Cities money because of political fractiousness in one participating county. Since then, it has detailed a plan that should finally leverage the great potential southern Indiana has being adjacent to rapidly growing Louisville. It is clear that since 2015, this region’s leaders have been actively and effectively working to prepare for this type of opportunity.
I don’t have enough space to do these proposals justice, but I would encourage readers to visit www.iedc.in.gov/program/indiana-readi to read about them. It is worth acknowledging that much of the success of this program belongs to staff at the IEDC. In just a few months, they laid out a very straightforward path for regions to follow. They also did some friendly haranguing and extended the deadline a few weeks. This is as fair and transparent a process for state funding as I have ever seen.
In general, the only significant complaint I have is that most regions used unreliable housing data or misinterpreted the correct data.
It is also important to explain why an economist with a strong free-market focus supports this kind of effort. The READI Grant follows the very successful Regional Cities program of the Pence Administration, which itself was built from the Stellar Communities program started in the Daniels Administration. All of these state government programs ask communities to do something very basic and useful — identify what sort of infrastructure your citizens wish to see built, and prioritize these projects based on cost and need.
Often this happens through normal, healthy politics; in fact, that is why the first few Stellar Communities won. Where Stellar Communities made a real difference is in its impacts on places that weren’t as effective at identifying problems and engaging with citizens. Several dozen Hoosier cities are today better off just for having attempted to win the Stellar Communities funding.
The expanded focus of Regional Cities demanded even more of communities around the state. Not only did counties, cities and towns need a transparent process of local engagement, but they also had to work with a broader region. Neighboring jurisdictions then act as an informal peer review for the design of spending priorities ranging from local trails or parks to large transportation infrastructure projects.
Make no mistake, the READI Grant program is not a panacea. Every region created in this process suffers from educational attainment levels markedly lower than the national average. That is Indiana’s fundamental economic problem, and it needs much more than quality of place improvements to remedy.
Ultimately, for regions, the benefit of the READI Grant is the process, not the financial awards. Regions with good plans will eventually find resources for the work they need. Those with weaker plans should use this as an opportunity for more fundamental self-evaluation. Those that did so after losing bids in the 2015 Regional Cities Initiative offer the best example.
Still, the widespread response by Indiana’s regions to the 2021 READI Grant program represents a remarkable policy achievement. Gov. Eric Holcomb and the leadership of the General Assembly who worked hard to pass this legislation should be rightfully pleased at this development. Like the Stellar Communities and Regional Cities Initiative, the READI Grants will gather national attention as thoughtful, low-cost efforts to grow the Indiana economy and strengthen local governments.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected]