READI examines regional priorities


By Jana Wiersema | For The Tribune

As regional officials continue discussions about applying for economic development grant funds, certain areas of focus are starting to arise — ones that often overlap and play into each other.

As Seymour Mayor Matt Nicholson put it during a recent workshop, “There’s no magic bullet that fixes a ton of this stuff, but it all intertwines.”

Representatives from Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties met at Toyota Material Handling in south Columbus Wednesday afternoon to discuss recommended priorities for their Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative application.


These areas are included in the South Central Indiana Talent Region, one of 18 regional coalitions that have formed to apply for READI funding. It is led by Southern Indiana Housing and Community Development Corp. Edinburgh also is part of the region and has been involved in the conversations.

According to the Indiana Economic Development Corp., READI will dedicate $500 million in state appropriations to “promote strategic investments that will make Indiana a magnet for talent and economic growth.”

Counties, cities and towns are partnering together as regions to apply for these funds. The regions are expected to attract a minimum 4:1 match, including a required 1:1 match from local public funding. The IEDC will award up to $50 million per region.

HWC Engineering, which has been hired to help the region develop its READI application, coordinated Wednesday’s session with Partner and Director of Planning Cory Whitesell taking the lead.

After a brief recap regarding READI, Whitesell presented a summary of countywide priorities that had been discussed in prior separate sessions with Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties.

From those lists emerged five suggested areas of focus for the region’s READI application: Talent/workforce attraction, housing, education and workforce development, entrepreneurship/economic vitality and quality of life. A steering committee also has been involved and reviewed these priorities.

For each of these categories, actions were recommended — with the exception of talent attraction, which was seen as an “overall goal” the other initiatives would help achieve.

“We realized that the talent and workforce attraction was really kind of an overarching goal over everything that we’re talking about, rather than a very specific item,” Whitesell said.

As stated in HWC’s presentation, the recommended actions were as follows:

Housing: “Programming and investment to spur and sustain housing.” Recommendations included developing programs to make a “sustainable housing ecosystem” and investing in infrastructure to help development, such as utilities and broadband internet.
Entrepreneurship: “Develop tri-county innovation centers.” Recommendations included regional centers centered on “emerging technologies” and creating a network of “scalable building spaces” to support growing startups.
Workforce development and education: “Local access to degree and certificate programs.” Recommendations included expanding training programs to support degree and certificate programs in each county and supporting development of the Columbus airpark campus as a regional education hub.
Quality of life: “Support downtowns and community centers as hubs of activity.” Recommendations included expanding programming and investments to support downtowns in the region and creating community centers to meet local needs, such as fitness and recreation.
Over the course of the meeting, attendees discussed each of these four categories in small groups at their respective tables, answering questions about whether or not they agreed about prioritizing the subjects and what initiatives are needed to achieve goals in each area.

Whitesell then instructed each table to come up with a few main takeaways, which were presented to the larger group by a table leader and recorded on a large pad of paper for all to see.

This feedback generally confirmed the importance of the recommended priorities, though in some cases, there were differing views about specific initiatives.

For instance, Administrative Resources association Executive Director Eric Frey said his table discussed the need for incentives or “encouragement” for more work to be done in the downtown areas.

Columbus Utility Board Chairman Clayton Force said in his recap, however, there are certain challenges to investing in downtown areas.

“There are limits to infrastructure, to facilities, to surface parking and other items that may not make that feasible,” he said.

Other prominent themes included the need for regional identity and collaboration.

Force said his table also discussed the importance of using each community’s different gifts.

“We spoke about leveraging each area’s or county’s strengths, their uniqueness, their own advantage,” he said.

Transportation also was mentioned as a possible area of interest.

“If there was one thing that was talked about a lot that we didn’t see as easy to fit into this program, it was probably transportation,” Whitesell said. “We heard a lot about rural transit in the conversation, how we do a regional connectivity, more on-demand structures, but a lot of different ideas about how you best connect workers to employment and to retail centers.”

While it’s not necessarily easy to fit it into READI, he acknowledged it is still a need and it’s something to “keep looking at.”

Whitesell said next steps will include examining input from Wednesday’s session, refining goals and determining which projects best meet those goals. The steering committee will make those key decisions, and then individual groups will need to make decisions about whether or not the funding is present to support those projects.

A public website will be launched by the end of the week, he said. It will have some information and video updates, but not everything will be posted on this site due to the competitive nature of the grant process.

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