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  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Fundraising campaign director Jim Chinworth, left, and board president Jim Smith at the Manchester Early Learning Center, one of the first projects to be completed with support from a Regional Cities grant.

  • Sampson

  • Galbraith

  • Smith

  • Chinworth

  • Francisco

Sunday, May 07, 2017 1:00 am

A Million reasons

Area sees positive early results in leveraging Regional Cities money to attract and keep residents

KAREN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

In the pipeline

The Regional Development Authority has committed $40.4 million for 23 projects

1. Skyline Tower, Great Lakes Capital

2. Thunder Ice Arena, Trine University

3. Downtown campus, University of Saint Francis

4. Embassy Theatre

5. DeKalb County YMCA

6. Little River Trail, Huntington County

7. Manchester Early Learning Center, North Manchester

8. North Buffalo Street Redevelopment Project, Warsaw

9. Fort Wayne Regional Trails

10. South Adams Trails

11. The Enterprise Center, Angola

12. United Brethren Block, Huntington

13. Posterity Heights Scholar House, Fort Wayne

14. Michiana Event Center, Shipshewana

15. The Landing, Fort Wayne

16. The Clyde Theatre, Fort Wayne

17. Riverfront Fort Wayne, Phase I

18. Russell and Evelyn Fahl Aquatics Center, Columbia City 

19. Eagles Theater, Wabash

20. Wabash River Trails, Wabash County

21. Strawberry Valley Cultural Trail, Ligonier

22. Fishing Line Trail, Noble County

23. Kendallville Outdoor Recreation Center

The Regional Cities Initiative might be Mike Pence's crowning economic development achievement. The governor sold it to a reluctant Indiana General Assembly and even persuaded lawmakers to add $42 million to the $84 million proposal.

With Vice President Pence now in Washington, the task of proving its worth falls to the three regions fortunate to claim a share, including the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority. Will Regional Cities deliver the population gains and wage growth northeast Indiana needs? Does it truly serve all of the region – or just Fort Wayne? Is it crony capitalism, as some critics have suggested?

A year into implementation, this area's RDA has approved 23 projects in 10 counties. As the projects come on line, they should begin to answer questions for both the critics and for those hoping Regional Cities will deliver for northeast Indiana the sort of growth Indianapolis has enjoyed.

Without doubt, the 23 projects in this region's Road to One Million effort are fueling an unprecedented amount of economic activity, leveraging $255 million in spending for the state's $42 million investment. The goals are population growth, economic growth and national brand identity, said John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

“I know there were some legislators that didn't necessarily agree with the precept involved that this is a significant challenge to economic growth and the future of this state,” he said. “What we're trying to build here is a region that works, and the Regional Cities money could help us be better connected, invest in the individual communities around the region.” 

Michael Galbraith, director of the Road to One Million initiative, said this area's RDA adopted a funding philosophy setting up a sort of “first-come, first-served” process.

“If your project is ready, we will consider it,” he explained. “Rather than picking a winner here and saying, 'We're going to give you four years to go raise your funds.' So, we could say, 'If this is a great project and if you have your funding lined up, you're going to have a chance to go before the board.' ”

Sampson said the process set aside political considerations.

“It was about what projects emerged first – which one could generate the private-sector backing required and needed,” he said. “The communities actually had to do a market test of every one of those projects. There were trails projects that – if they couldn't get the private funding – they weren't going to pass the market test.”

But numerous trails projects did pass the market test – a testament to residents' enthusiasm for quality-of-place improvements. The list represents an intriguing departure from the industrial parks and job-training projects that have dominated the economic development menu for years. Watching college graduates move to Indianapolis, Chicago and other urban centers, community leaders finally seem to have figured out that young residents are looking for more than jobs.

The best example may be the Regional Cities project closest to completion. The idea for a new child-care center came from a church youth group. The students looked at the 40-year-old center – next to a foundry in North Manchester – and decided they wanted to build a new one. Jim Smith, board chairman for the center, said the students themselves began raising money toward the $2.6 million project, supported by $520,000 in Regional Cities funds.

Jim Chinworth, associate pastor of Manchester Church of the Brethren, said the project became a passion for the students, some of whom have devoted nearly four years to making it happen.

“They really took this on because they believe in it,” Chinworth said. “They knew this matters for any community, and especially a community like ours. I pushed them all, telling them, 'You have benefited from early-childhood education and care from your parents, church and community. Doesn't everybody need that?' ”

The 11,000-square-foot-center opens next month on land donated by the town. It is close to Warvel Park, the library and the community's aquatics center to allow for outings. There's space for 100 children instead of the current 46. The staff of 14 is expected to double.

Would it have happened without Regional Cities support?

Yes, but it would have taken much longer, Smith said.

“I've been involved in other building projects,” he said. “The last few $100,000 are always the toughest. People have the idea you've got enough; that someone else will do it. We would probably have not been able to do it as quickly. We're grateful to Regional Cities and to the RDA board for seeing the worth of it.”

Smith also makes a case for its value as an economic development tool.

“People who are looking to move to your community will see it as an asset. When both parents work, they need child care,” he said.

Chinworth said the center serves children from no less than five counties in the region.

Regional Cities' brand identity piece comes with the Fort Wayne projects, Sampson concedes, noting state officials' wish was that much of the Regional Cities money would go to largest cities in each region. 

“We know that when people leave northeast Indiana, it's about Fort Wayne. When we get done with Regional Cities, as we build this, downtown Fort Wayne – the city of Fort Wayne, Allen County – has to be better. It has to be stronger in terms of national branding. When people come here, almost always they are going to visit Fort Wayne, and they have to be impressed by it.”

Neighboring communities understand that Fort Wayne must be attractive for the region to prosper, he said.

RDA Chairman Bob Marshall, an executive vice president with Campbell & Fetter Bank in Kendallville, said he is pleased with the process used to select the Regional Cities projects and pleased with the outcome.

“Each project contributes to improving the quality of place in the respective community,” he said of the 23 initiatives.

The Road to One Million process, with the RDA's guidance, looks to have hit the sweet spot – a good balance of investment in the region's largest city but also investment in the counties and small communities Indiana must nurture if it ever hopes to grow and prosper. It won't work to pin all hopes on Indianapolis. Former Gov. Pence – to his credit – figured it out.  

Karen Francisco is the editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.