• By Ball State University

Regional Cities Initiative To Bring Growth - North Central Indiana Region Strategy Is Missing

The South Bend / Elkhart Regional Partnership is linking the expertise available at Ball State University with communities, businesses and non-profit entities to help them enhance overall community development in North Central Indiana. The Indiana Communities Institute at Ball State University addresses the modern challenges of economic development through community-based strategies for sustainable growth using a framework of research, policy, and practice. Our partnerships lead to informed, effective projects and strategies that bring development efforts into the 21st Century.

Could involvement with the South Bend / Elkhart Regional Partnership help boost efforts by Main Street Of Walkerton to develop empty lots in and around downtown Walkerton? Other Indiana communities recieved grants to improve their communities.

Most communities have sought to grow by attracting and retaining families. Growth generally is known to bring increased opportunity and wealth to communities. In many ways, this was the impetus for creating the Regional Cities Initiative back in 2015 by Indiana’s former Governor Mike Pence.

Since then, three regions have been selected by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) to receive $42 million in funding appropriated for this initiative by the Indiana General Assembly. The three regions receiving the Regional Cities designation by the IEDC are the North Central, Northeast, and Southwest regions.

It’s important to note that the communities within these regions have, at different periods of time, previously collaborated on area economic development efforts with mixed success.

Northeast Region—Prior to 2006, Indiana Northeast Development (IND) sought to market nine northeastern Indiana counties as places for expanding businesses to (re)locate. North Central Region—Regional leaders in north central Indiana have stated that the Regional Cities Initiative was the impetus needed to get their communities to fully commit to working together.

Several efforts faltered prior to establishing the Michiana Partnership in 2011, which hired staff in 2013, and was renamed the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership in 2017. Southwest Region—Four counties in southwestern Indiana banded together for economic development because they felt comfortable working together.

This may be attributed to a need to obtain interstate access between Indianapolis and the Southwest Region. A sense of remoteness may have led to greater cooperation and a common purpose. Outcomes The intent of the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative is to help communities across Indiana come together to transform their regions into nationally-recognized destinations to live, work and play. With employers continually stressing the need for a large, skilled workforce, Indiana is building upon its strong economic foundation to create a quality of place that attracts and retains future generations of Hoosiers.

Could residential development improve the center of Walkerton? There is a demand for housing in Walkerton. A housing shortage forces residents to move to other communities while local employment positions grow. New affordable housing on empty lots could be a solution to maintain a sustainable downtown area.

Through the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative, communities are working together in collaborative ways and striving to make Indiana a destination for talent. While many of the Regional Cities projects are just now getting underway, we ask “What has been both the seen and unseen impact of the Regional Cities initiative thus far?”

A previous study, Hicks 2017, attempted to answer and project some of the quantitative impacts of the Regional Cities Initiative. Shifting focus, this 2018 report examines the qualitative impact based on interviews and on-site visits. More than 30 individuals in all three regions were interviewed, including elected officials, Regional Development Authority board members, project partners, and local citizens.

The Indiana Regional Cities Initiative has provided money for projects like "The Mill At Ironworks Plaza" in Mishawaka.

It’s interesting to note the diversity of projects in the three regions. This further indicates the regional plans were developed locally to emphasize local needs and desires. There was no statewide mandate or course of action, but rather local vision and authority were relied on to develop the plan and select the best projects.

Southwest Region In the Southwest Region, money from the Regional Cities Initiative was used to expand Signature School, a charter school. This allowed the school to purchase much-needed science lab equipment. This improvement dovetails with the medical school in Evansville, giving local high school students the needed educational foundation.

In addition, Regional Cities funds have been used to help with improvements at the downtown YMCA in Evansville. This again is a collaborative effort because, in addition to improving a downtown building, students from Signature School use the YMCA facilities for physical education classes and also volunteer as tutors. Mt. Vernon Princeton Evansville Booneville Terre Haute Gary Jeffersonville Southwest North Central Northeast Columbus Indianapolis Muncie South Bend Mishawaka Elkhart Plymouth Warsaw Wabash Huntington Columbia City Bluffton Decatur Ft. Wayne Angola Kendallville Auburn Lagrange North Manchester.

There was no statewide mandate or course of action, but rather local vision and authority were relied on to develop the plan and select the best projects. © Indiana Communities Institute Ball State University

The YMCA has been in downtown Evansville for over 160 years and serves many older adults, as well as students. Without the Regional Cities Initiative, the $17 million project would not have happened. The Regional Cities contribution of $5 million was truly needed to fill the funding gap. It is important to note that no project is 100 percent grant-funded; all require a significant private investment.

The North Central Region is not outlining strategy.

The diversity of projects can be seen within regions as well as across the three regions. In the Northeast Region, the Regional Cities Initiative has funded the trails connecting various communities within the region, as well as downtown improvement projects in several communities, and diverse projects ranging from a hockey arena to a daycare facility.

While some of these projects may seem disconnected at the surface level, they were strategically chosen to address key challenges or leverage key assets and help support other area projects. Angola’s Thunder Ice Arena has become an attraction to residents and visitors alike for ice hockey games and lessons, with many spectators visiting the city for the first time.

The multi-use facility also serves as a place where people of all ages can learn to ice skate. A lack of childcare can be a dealbreaker for job candidates who would be willing to move to town, even when prospective employers pay competitive wages and benefits. The Manchester Early Learning Center in North Manchester filled a hole in economic development efforts to attract a talented workforce and young families to the area.

Recognizing the value of a daycare in the community, a local youth group helped raise the money needed to augment Regional Cities funding. North Central Region One of the premier projects receiving Regional Cities funds in the North Central Region is the Elkhart Aquatics Center.

It is a partnership of multiple proportions with the City of Elkhart, Elkhart Community Schools, the Community Foundation, Beacon Health System, and private individuals all contributing funds to finance the building. The size and scope of the facility will attract swimmers for competitions from across the country, which in turn brings tourism dollars. In addition, this collaborative effort promotes not only aquatics, but also overall health, fitness, and community wellness in the region.

The Mill at Ironworks Plaza, developed by Flaherty & Collins Properties, is another project that could not have happened without Regional Cities funding according to Ken Prince, city planning director for the City of Mishawaka. The former Uniroyal Property site had been cleaned by the city in 2002 but received no responses to an RFP for redevelopment, sitting vacant until the funding gap could be filled.

The private investment is over $35 million, with $10 million from the city and $5 million from the state. Outcomes in Smaller Communities When those who were interviewed were asked: “What was the most surprising result of the Regional Cities Initiative so far?” sentiment from the smaller communities was consistent.

Across all three regions, leaders of small communities responded that they were pleased that the bigger cities recognized the value of partnerships and investments made in many of the communities across the region. These large, high-dollar projects include Evansville’s airport and medical school, Riverfront Fort Wayne, and South Bend’s former Studebaker site.

However, rather than funnel all the money into a single project, several ready-to-go projects from a wide swath of communities were also included in Regional Cities funding. In addition to the “big city” projects, funds have been allocated in the Southwest to Gibson County’s Oakland City University for student housing and to Warrick County for a master-planned community development.

In the Northeast, the leaders in Huntington County showed real excitement when they were able to show off the recently completed Strawberry Trail. And in the North Central Region, three buildings on the bank of the Yellow River in downtown Plymouth will fill a housing need for Marshall County employers.

Rivergate Apartments in downtown Plymouth is helping with the housing shortage there. It helps sustain the community.

Signature School Science Center—Evansville, Ind. Source: Hafer Associates. The Mill at Ironworks Plaza—Mishawaka, Ind. Source: Flaherty & Collins Properties © Indiana Communities Institute Ball State University | adding executive-style housing that can help attract new residents. In addition, the former ‘500 Building’ in downtown Elkhart will be transformed into the area’s only downtown hotel. Challenges and Rewards While those interviewed all feel the Regional Cities Initiative has been an overall success, there have been challenges.

Some worthwhile projects that were initially slated for inclusion could not be completed in the short time frame the IEDC required. While this is noteworthy and perhaps disappointing to those who did not receive funding, most agree it was important to have a tight time frame.

Another challenge with construction projects of almost any kind is they take on a life of their own. In Evansville, there are unique challenges when building underground parking structures because the soil is so close to the river. In another community, the endangered Indiana bat may cause a delay in order to meet environmental habitat requirements.

In spite of the challenges, all three regions speak of the Regional Cities Initiative as a catalyst bringing life back to the area. There was a palpable sense of excitement and enthusiasm in all three areas, from local restaurant wait staff to teachers and business owners. In the Southwest Region, Evansville’s E is for Everyone placemaking campaign is gaining momentum and people agree the dollars have been a game changer, reinvigorating people to take pride in their community as well as work together more collaboratively. People in neighboring communities are now rooting for each other to succeed.

The Regional Cities Initiative has enabled North Central Indiana to develop a regional strategy, which had been missing. Northern Indiana RDA board member Pete McCown said, “The Regional Cities Initiative provided us the opportunity to look at this and caused local leaders to work together.”

In the Northeast Region, the Fort Wayne Community Foundation has granted/committed over $3.5 million to support Riverfront Fort Wayne development and programming. It’s a cause not typically funded by the Foundation, but board members agree the Riverfront project is inspiring the city to collectively re-imagine and reinvent the public space at the heart of its community.

Regional Cities has funded projects like the "Riverfront Landings Apartments" of Fort Wayne. Regional Cities is also funding a hotel there.

Very recently, an out-of-state developer announced plans to build a new hotel in Fort Wayne’s downtown; this project does not include Regional Cities funding, but is a result of seeing the development downtown and the need for additional hotel rooms. Likewise, John Urbahns, executive vice president of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., believes that, without Regional Cities Initiative, “…the Skyline Tower and The Landing projects in downtown Fort Wayne would not have happened because there was truly a gap in financing.” According to Urbahans, the most positive result of the effort has been the accelerated momentum for development by having the Regional Cities funding available.

Many public financing programs are designed to bridge the gap between what the developer needs to finance a project and what a private lender is willing to lend. Gap financing can also help mitigate risk and may give a private lender or investor more confidence in the deal.

Many instances of gap financing exist across the nation; one example is the Community Revitalization Program (CRP), run jointly by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Michigan Strategic Fund, which led to several successful projects.

“CRP funding was critical in bridging the gap of addressing the high costs of redevelopment and remediating environmental concerns of an urban site. Can Walkerton bridge the gap to get public financing from lenders? It is a key part of allowing us to bring investment and subsequent high-quality housing, jobs, and gathering spaces to our community.

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