On deck: State releases more details about local region’s application for READI 2.0 funds

Artist rendering provided The local region has designated one READI 2.0 potential project as a vehicle innovation center at the former Walesboro airport.

State officials have released more details about an application by a region comprised of Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, along with the town of Edinburgh, for funding through an expanded state economic development initiative.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. has announced that the initiative, called the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, or READI, is planning to award a second round of funding to boost community development investments statewide.

A collective total of $500 million in funding will be awarded to regions across the state during the second round of the initiative, which has been dubbed “READI 2.0,” as well as an additional $250 million in grant funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. Additionally, the second round of state funding is expected to attract a minimum four-to-one match of local public and private funding.

Last week, state officials released the proposals for READI 2.0 funding submitted by 15 regions representing all 92 counties in the state, including the local region, which is called the South Central Indiana Talent Region.

The region’s application largely centers around its overall strategy and goals, including, among other things, supporting efforts from local employers that “embrace innovation and change to remodel our economy,” which is heavily concentrated in the production of internal combustion engines and other components used in the transportation and mobility sectors.

Currently, about 19,000 people — 1 in 5 jobs — in Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, as well as the town of Edinburgh, are employed in occupations that design, test and build internal combustion engines, according to the region’s proposal.

However, the automotive manufacturing sector as a whole finds itself at a crossroads of sorts, as alternative fuel technology grows in viability and concerns about climate change continue to reshape how companies and policymakers think about energy consumption.

“Once considered state of the art, the manufacturing of internal combustion engines is undergoing radical transformation and will soon be the technology of the past, replaced by electric, fuel cell and other next-generation mobility technologies. To ensure that our region continues to prosper, we must embrace innovation and change to remodel our economy around these technologies,” the local region states in its proposal. “…This shift in mobility technologies will require transformation of our workforce. Our region is known for its industrial and mechanical engineers. To support needed innovation, we must attract more computer and electrical engineers. Ultimately, much of our current automotive-related workforce will need retraining to support the manufacturing of these new technologies.”

The proposal states that large employers in the region, including Cummins Inc., LHP Engineering and FORVIA, are investing in research and development and “our region’s priority is to support their innovation efforts.”

Additionally, the proposal includes a few projects that regional officials believe could be a good fit for funding through READI 2.0, including a potential vehicle innovation center at the former Walesboro airport.

The center would be a collaborative effort between LHP Engineering and FORVIA to design, prototype and test and next-generation mobility technologies, including electric vehicles and alternative fuel technologies, said Jason Hester, president of the Greater Columbus (Indiana) Economic Development Corp., who is on a regional steering committee that was formed to advance the work of the South Central Indiana Talent Region.

FORVIA refers to one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, which was formed after France-based Faurecia acquired a controlling stake in German automotive parts supplier HELLA in 2022.

Other regional goals listed in the funding proposal include investments in education — including expanding access to degree and certificate programs linked to “well-paying jobs” in the region — and efforts to encourage population growth through housing and “high-impact quality-of-place initiatives.”

Another project that regional officials listed in their proposal was the CityView District, which is an effort by Columbus Regional Health to develop about 700 acres of agricultural land that the hospital system acquired on the city’s west side in 2018.

A master plan released by CRH last year includes a 100-acre CRH campus on the north side of the site, as well as a variety of residential neighborhoods, mixed-use commercial and retail, office space, civic, community and green space, among other potential development opportunities.

The agricultural land, also known as the Garden City Farms property, stretches from Interstate 65 almost to State Road 11 and is located south of the westside Walmart and the north of the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.

Regional officials think that some infrastructure and design work for the project could be a good fit for READI 2.0, said Columbus Mayor Mary Ferdon, who also is on the steering committee.

“There are a lot of infrastructure costs around sewers and streets and roads and some design work,” Ferdon said. “We felt like the CityView infrastructure would be a good fit for part of the READI 2 ask. …The master plan talks about 1,000 new housing units, and so from (the city’s) perspective, it’s a great opportunity to be part of the development of that.”

In addition, regional officials included a couple projects in Jackson County as examples of efforts that could be a match for READI 2.0 funds. Those projects include a downtown theater and immigrant welcome center in Seymour and the Burkhart Opportunity Zone, officials said.

Those two projects came out of a study conducted last year by the Brookings Institution and LISC, said Jim Plump, executive director of the Jackson County Industrial Development Corp.

The theater and welcome center would seek to better incorporate Jackson County’s growing immigrant population into the community, Plump said.

The Burkhart Opportunity Zone is an area that has been identified as a location for additional housing in Jackson County, Plump said. The zone runs along Burkart Boulevard and includes the East Side Industrial Park on the northeast side to Freeman Municipal Airport to the southwest.

However, officials have said “none of that is set in stone” at this point and that the fact certain projects were listed in the proposal does not necessarily mean they will get funded through the initiative.

The requirements were a little different for READI 2.0 than during the initial round of funding, with state officials emphasizing that they wanted to better understand each region’s overall strategy but still wanted to know that there were potential projects that could be a good match for the initiative, officials said.

“What we really want to get out to people is that there are things in (the proposal) that are part of our overall strategies, and we hope that we can get them all funded,” Plump said. “However, we realize that it is more about the strategy, and we’ll just see how things play out once we learn what the state is going to do.”

“This is just part of the strategy, and just because projects are in (the proposal) or some projects are not in that does not mean they will or won’t be funded,” Plump added.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. says that the proposals will be evaluated on a variety of factors, including economic development potential, the level of focus on rural communities, the degree of regional collaboration and alignment with the state’s economic development priorities, such as population growth, per-capita income growth, growth in employment opportunities, educational attainment, housing units developed, childcare capacity and innovation activities.

State officials said the themes of the local region’s application were “inspire and cultivate collaboration among companies and communities to build powerful technologies, prosperous communities and a resilient future by focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship, education and workforce development, housing and quality of place.”

The second round of funding comes just over two years after the local region was awarded $30 million of funding through READI 1.0, which local officials at the time described an “unprecedented” opportunity and a “game-changer” for the region.

While local officials later needed to make some tweaks as they navigated federal guidelines for the funding, several projects in the region received READI 1.0 funding.

Some of those projects include the Columbus Riverfront Project, NexusPark, a project to develop a single-family home subdivision in North Vernon, the renovation of an inpatient unit on the third floor of Schneck Medical Center in Seymour and the extension of Main Street in Edinburgh, among several others, according to the Indiana Economic Development Corp.