READI, set, go: $30 million state development grant going to local region

Photo provided Five members of the South Central Indiana Talent Region Steering Committee are shown with Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers, shortly after the $30 Million READI announcement. They are, left-right, Brad Chambers, state Secretary of Commerce, John Burnett, Community Education Coalition, Jason Hester, Greater Columbus EDC, Kathy Ertel, Jennings County EDC, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, Eric Frey, Southern Indiana Housing and Community Development Corp. and Jim Plump, Jackson County Industrial Development Corp.

A region comprised of Jackson, Bartholomew and Jennings counties, along with the town of Edinburgh, is receiving a $30 million grant from a state initiative for economic development.

“I think the future’s pretty bright for our region,” said Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop in response to the news.

Recommendations for grant awards from the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) were announced Tuesday at a joint meeting of the board of directors of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) and the Indiana Economic Development Foundation. The funding amounts were announced by Jason Dudich of the READI Review Committee and then approved by the board.

The session, at Butler University, was chaired by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who remarked, “Indiana is definitely ready to do more.”

Indiana Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers, who also attended, thanked the regions who applied and said they “worked tirelessly, strategically imagining the future of their counties.”

“I heard, for months on end, just how proud you were of the collaboration that occurred,” he said.

The competitive READI grant program encouraged Indiana communities to partner together on proposals for future growth and improvement in their region, particularly in regards to talent attraction and retention. Seventeen regions applied for the program. As part of the program, these regions were required to attract a minimum 4-to-1 match, including a 1-to-1 match from local public funding.

The South Central Indiana Talent Region’s proposal included projects that fall into four categories: innovation and entrepreneurship, education and workforce development, housing and talent attraction and quality of place.

The plan had a total proposed budget of more than $378 million, with $49.5 million coming from READI funds.

Lienhoop said that he’s excited, despite the grant coming in at less than what was requested.

“Now we look forward to trying to figure out what comes next,” he said. The Columbus mayor expects the state to offer some guidance on how to allocate the funds.

Greater Columbus Economic Development Corp. President Jason Hester said that officials are thankful for the award, though they will have to figure out how to make cuts and where to allocate resources as they consider the proposed projects.

“We’ll do it as a region,” Hester said. He added that they’ll continue to engage the private partners who have been involved in the process.

Eric Frey, executive director of the Southern Indiana Housing and Community Development Corp, said that $30 million, in terms of per capita, is a “big win for the region.” According to the region’s website, the South Central Indiana Talent Region is “home to nearly 160,000 residents.”

“I’m grateful, excited,” Frey said. “…$30 million, I think, will have a significant impact on these three counties.”

He expects that even with the lower grant amount, the region will still see substantial public and private investment, with partners working to make projects a reality.

According to Frey, there will be an organizational meeting on Jan. 11 to go over next steps. Officials expect to learn more of the administrative details of the grant at that time.

The South Central region’s plan proposes to use READI funding to help bankroll or support numerous projects in the greater Columbus area, including a research and development test complex at the former Walesboro airport property, the NexusPark project at the site of the former FairOaks Mall in Columbus, expansion of the Seymour High Schools Owls Manufacturing Program and broadband access in rural Jennings County.

In Bartholomew County, READI funding would help support, among other projects, the construction of the initial phase of a new research and development test complex and proving ground for autonomous, electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.

The complex, the Mobility Test Park and Proving Ground, would be at the former Walesboro airport, where Cummins and Faurecia are using the former runways as a test track.

“In 2022, construction of a new replacement track for Cummins will be built by the community,” the plan states. “In 2023, construction of the autonomous pad will commence which will become a shared and managed facility open for users to conduct short-term or long-term testing and validation needs.”

In 2024, LHP Engineering Solutions conditionally expects to invest in a new engineering facility to house its growing Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems and functional safety business, with additional space available to welcome new ventures on site, the plan states.

LHP Engineering Solutions has conditionally pledged more than $15 million of its own funds to two of the projects in the plan, though it is currently unclear which two projects the company may help pay for, according to the announcement.

The project at Walesboro has been envisioned and considered by Columbus officials for several years.

“At full build, facilities will allow testing and certification of autonomous, noise/vibration/handling, braking, highway, electric vehicle and other applications,” the plan states.

The funding would also help fund part of the NexusPark project at the former FairOaks Mall site in Columbus.

The city of Columbus has a projected commitment of $33 million in the project, including the construction of an indoor fieldhouse, recreational facilities, Columbus Parks’ administrative offices, community fitness facilities, non-sports activity areas and community gathering spaces.

Columbus Regional Hospital has committed $35 million for health care facilities, including physician offices, diagnostic services, wellness spaces and physical and occupational therapy spaces.

READI funds would be used to support the currently unfunded exterior campus and connector facilities, including community park spaces, People Trails and access to a public transportation hub, according to the plan.

The funding is also projected to help support other projects in Bartholomew County, including the Columbus Riverfront Project and a hotel and conference center in downtown Columbus, among others, the plan states.

The funding would also help fund a parking garage that would support the hotel and conference center and other events and festivals in downtown Columbus and help get construction underway on plans to redevelop the waterfront between the Second and Third Street bridges in downtown Columbus, which could start next year and take an estimated 18 months.

While the initial READI grant awards were announced Tuesday, the program may not be over yet. Holcomb announced last week that he plans to seek a second round of funding for READI in 2023, as the 17 regions that applied sought more than triple the program’s $500 million budget.

Additionally, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. had projected that READI was expected to attract at least $2 billion of local public, private and philanthropic match funding.

However, according to Chambers, the matching investments across all the regions who applied total more than $15 billion.

Both Chambers and Holcomb suggested at Tuesday’s meeting that a second round of READI is possible.

“We’ve got the financial wherewithal to again seize the day,” said the governor.