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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

On the Move

In 2014, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. commissioned a study of 11 peer cities across the nation that experienced strong population and economic growth. Through examining the communities, the study considered the questions of why those areas were successful and why others lacked.

The Regional Cities Initiative, first proposed by Gov. Mike Pence in early 2015, promises to pay $42 million to three regions in Indiana that will help build a quality place to live, add to the economic foundation, and attract and retain future generations of Hoosiers. The initiative is funded through Indiana’s Tax Amnesty Program, which raised more than originally targeted. Plans also are funded through public and private investments.

Seven regions across the state submitted applications by July 31, 2015, and presented their proposals to the Strategic Review Committee in October. In December, the committee elected to select three recipients, rather than the expected two, including the North Central Region (St. Joseph, Elkhart, and Marshall, Indiana), the Northeast Region (Greater Fort Wayne, Indiana), and the Southwest Region (Evansville Metropolitan Area).

“The fact that they chose us and we won, there is a psychological aspect to this,” says Greg Wathen, president and CEO at Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana, who guided the Southwest Region in the Regional Cities Initiative. “It is recognition that the region provides value to the state and our strategy is one that can be implemented and it will transform our region. It happened in the original 1958 Fantus Report as you looked at our region and how it was struggling, and again in 2011 we commissioned the Garner Economics Study out of Atlanta that said: you have tremendous assets but the real barrier to development is us. People are recognizing the fact that what we put forward can help transform the state of Indiana. The psychological recognition that we did this is just as important as anything else.”

On April 5, Gov. Pence ceremonially signed the House Enrolled Act 1001 to grant $42 million for each regional city at the Signature School’s Robert L. Koch II Science Center. HEA 1001 will go into effect July 1 and was signed into law on March 23.

“Through the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative, we have seen regions across the state working in partnership to inspire and generate the development of long-term and dynamic plans for the future,” said Gov. Pence at the ceremony. “Indiana’s Great Southwest plan will be key in attracting and retaining a skilled workforce and cultivating a strong business climate for long-term economic development and improving quality of life for the benefit of Hoosiers.”

The Proposal

The Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana worked with lead consultant Lochmueller Group, Garner Economics of Atlanta, and VPS Architecture to tell the compelling story outlined in the proposal.

“One of the things I think was really compelling about our proposal is we had so much concentrated in an area that they could see it transform as they were driving around,” says Wathen. “The great thing about our Downtown being the core is that it is a very concentrated area and it is easier to transform an area when it is smaller than when it is so vast.”

The “Great Life, Great Community, Great Environment, Great People” plan, Southwest Indiana’s proposal, was the largest and pledged to invest more than $926 million in public and private funding with a goal of increasing the region’s population by 70,000 people. The plan is separated into two categories that will see transformations — the City Center and Gateway Projects.

City Center Projects

New Urban Living Research Center — Haier America, the world’s largest manufacturer of household appliances, and Vectren, an energy holding company headquartered in Evansville, plan to pursue a Downtown housing development that will serve as a new urban living research center where people can live in the experiment.

Multi-Institutional Academic Health Science Education and Research Facility — The largest investment of the Southwest Region at $9 million, this city center project looks to fund lab space that will be within the campus promoting research.

Downtown Housing & Fitness Campus — The Downtown YMCA, home to 10,000 members, will be seeing changes. The campus could possibly expand with the construction of a new and modern fitness facility on an existing parking lot owned by the YMCA. A sky bridge would be built from the old gymnasium, converted into housing, to the new. The YMCA also has the possibility of tearing down the old structure and building an entirely new facility. Regional Cities funding has given this project $5 million.

Downtown Housing & Development — The Market Development project plans to incorporate residential living with commercial
and retail opportunities. Presented by Brandon Scott, director of brand strategy and digital at Ten Adams, and Mark Thompson, director of operations at Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., in an initial focus group meeting, the mixed-use development will be a gathering spot for the entire region, says Wathen. Regional Cities will set aside $5 million in funding for this project.

Signature School Science Center — Signature School, located in Downtown Evansville, is the No. 1 school in Indiana and the No. 1 school in the Midwest. “Signature School has a challenge with space and we will help them expand to up to 90 students,” says Wathen. “You have people as far away as Terre Haute who send their kids there and people who say they will relocate to the area if they have a shot at sending their child there. We have more of a demand to get in there than we have space.” The Southwest Region will add classrooms, labs, and common areas in a science center with an investment of $2.5 million. “This is an historic step for Signature School,” says Signature School Executive Director Jean Hitchcock. “It will enable us to advance our already excellent program, offering spots to more students while maintaining our sense of community.”

Regional Connector Trails — Trail connectivity is an essential community resource to attract young professionals and families. Regional Cities funding in the amount of $3,170,000 will be used to implement the Regional Connector Trails projects.

Gateway Projects

Oakland City University Downtown “U” — Because Oakland City University’s residency halls require updating or replacing, the Southwest Region will invest $3 million in Regional Cities funding to help rebuild downtown by putting student housing combined with retail right on the main street of downtown Oakland City.

Warrick County Wellness Trail  — Located near the Interstate 69 and Lloyd Expressway cloverleaf intersection is the Epworth Road and U.S. Highway 66 Medical District. This location is well suited to become a regional healthcare hub and using $1.5 million in Regional Cities funding, the Southwest Region plans to help complete the remaining infrastructure improvements.

Evansville Regional Airport Terminal Renovation — The Southwest Region plans to invest $5 million to remodel “the front door to our region,” says Wathen. The terminal structure opened in 1988 — prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — and has an outdated security layout. The inside of the terminal will be gutted and remodeled with amenities available for the 21st Century traveler. “Evansville Regional Airport is an important driver of economic activity in our entire region, so making investments that lay the groundwork for additional affordable choices for flyers and better facilities for passengers is incredibly important,” says Doug Joest, Evansville Regional Airport Director. “Before companies decide to locate in our region, they often look at how accessible it is — every dollar that we invest in Evansville Regional Airport is a dollar that we invest in our region’s job creation.”

New Harmony Arts & Food Project — The Southwest Region, using $500,000 in Regional Cities funding, will convert the former New Harmony High School into the Working Men’s Institute, a local not-for-profit educational institution with farm-to-table programs, renovate the Odd Fellows Hall to serve as a storefront and children’s museum, create a covered, extended-season outdoor market, and repurpose the New Harmony Way Bridge into a bike and pedestrian trail and park.

Victoria National Conference Center — The Regional Cities Initiative looks for ways regions can enhance their national and international brands. In the Southwest Region, Victoria National Golf Club aspires to develop a golf course and associated facilities that will result in being selected as a venue for PGA and USGA major golf events on a regular basis. The Southwest Region will invest $2 million through Regional Cities to build a new conference center that will be open to the public and utilized during tournaments.

Broadband Demonstration Project — In order to attract new residents to an area, it is essential that the area have an affordable, high-speed broadband service. Regional Cities funding will set aside $1 million for this project.

What’s Next?

The community will begin seeing changes around Evansville as early as the end of 2016, says Wathen.

“We are considering 2016 a planning year, but a couple projects will break ground this year. You’ll see most of the projects start next year,” he says.

Wathen says he plans to hold a celebration after each new groundbreaking, and assures that if a proposed project does not come to fruition, there are several supportive plans such as Mesker Park Zoo, Haynie’s Corner Arts District, and more able to receive Regional Cities funds.

“Lots of communities do plans. In many cases, like it or not, a lot of really great ideas in plans sit on someone’s shelf. This will not and we will do it in less than five years,” says Wathen.

 For more information about the Regional Cities Initiative, call 812-423-2020 or visit indianasgreatsouthwest.com.

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