Talking about the issues: Governor candidates discuss economic development at EDC luncheon

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Candidates for Indiana governor from left: Sen. Mike Braun (R), Brad Chambers (R), Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch (R), Eric Doden (R), Curtis Hill (R) and Donald Rainwater (L) participate in a Gubernatorial Candidate Forum hosted by Gerry Dick, of Inside INdiana Business, during the Greater Columbus Indiana Economic Development Corporation annual meeting at The Commons in Columbus, Ind., Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

Six candidates for Indiana governor participated in a candidate forum as part of the Greater Columbus Economic Development Corp. annual meeting Friday at The Commons.

The sold-out crowd heard a brief report from the EDC, followed by the gubernatorial candidate forum featuring:

  • Sen.Mike Braun, R-Indiana
  • Former Indiana Secretary of Commerce Brad Chambers (R)
  • Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch (R)
  • Fort Wayne businessman and former Indiana Economic Development Corp. President Eric Doden (R)
  • Former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill (R)
  • Donald Rainwater (Libertarian), who previously ran for governor in 2020

Organizers said that, as a nonpartisan organization, the EDC invited all “substantive candidates” to the forum, regardless of party affiliation. The campaign for Democratic candidate Jennifer McCormick, former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, declined to participate due to a schedule conflict.

The event was moderated by Gerry Dick, creator and host of the “Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick” television program and president of Inside INdiana Business. The questions, which centered on economic development, were created by EDC staff with input from Dick.

Among other things, candidates were asked about the state’s Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI).

The Indiana Economic Development Corp.’s (IEDC) competitive matching 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. The South Central Indiana Talent Region— which includes Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, as well as Edinburgh — was awarded a $30 million READI grant in December of 2021.

“Earlier this year, the legislature approved another $500 million in state funds this time for READI 2.0 that regions can compete for in the months ahead,” said Dick. “… What are your thoughts about the READI program, its impact on local and regional economies, and would you support a continuation of the READI program?”

Most of the candidates indicated that they were in favor of the initiative, with both Doden and Hill adding that it’s important to ensure local leaders make decisions about what projects are most important for their communities.

However, Rainwater indicated that he was against the READI grant program.

“You know that’s your money, right?” he said. “The state government, the federal government, they took that out of your paycheck. They took that out of your pocket. And now what they want to do is they create a program where they say, ‘Now we’ve got this money. And we’re going to give it to you, some of it, you can compete for it if you’ll do what we want you to do with the money.’ I think that is inherently, unethically wrong.”

He went on to say that “big government” is not the way to fix problems, including those related to the economy.

Dick also asked the candidates about their opinions on another major IEDC project: the LEAP Lebanon Innovation District.

According to the IEDC, the site plan features 9,000-plus acres that are located along I-65 and will be available to parcel to businesses in industries such as manufacturing and research and development. The state envisions the property as being home to hundreds of companies and more than 50,000 employees.

“IEDC is actively marketing that site, and see Eli Lilly and Co. putting a manufacturing campus there, its largest investment ever,” said Dick. “… And recently, there’s been a lot of media attention on the IEDC’s proposed plan to potentially build a pipeline to take millions of gallons of water per day from the Wabash River in the Lafayette area to that Boone County site.”

Chambers, who stepped down as secretary of commerce and head of the IEDC earlier this year, said he is very supportive of the project.

“That is a bold, future-focused investment in our state’s future,” he said. “As it relates to the water, we have an abundance of resources in this state, and water is one of those. There was never any approach with that that would create winners and losers. It’s all winners or it wouldn’t be done.”

His opponents were more critical of the project, with Crouch stating that there has been a lack of transparency and not enough communication with local officials. She also emphasized the importance of having a state water plan and said that Indiana’s economic development policy should not be top-down.

Doden and Braun emphasized this latter point, stating that there should be more investment in small business and entrepreneurs.

“Any top-down approach where you’re not taking in a broad spectrum of opinion, that’s the insider game,” said Braun. “It’s not to say that we shouldn’t occasionally be spending a decent amount of money to get in that larger company to give us that highest strata of income. But when you see all of that being the normal operating procedure and the benefits only in the center of our state and in that bubble, something has to be done differently.”

Rainwater described the project as an example of the government overreaching “to do something beneficial at somebody else’s expense”, and Hill said that projects like this should be shelved until there is community buy-in and partnership.

“The LEAP project is exactly what the state should not be doing,” he said. “It’s forcing itself onto a local community. I mean, think about it. If you don’t have water for your project … wouldn’t it make more sense to move your project where the water is?”