Indiana Touts Regional Economic Plan, But Competition Factors Into West Central IN Effort

Dec 14, 2016

Credit Indiana Economic Development Corporation / http://indianaregionalcities.com/

State leaders have pinned Indiana’s economic fortunes to regional economic development initiatives.  

Many programs have been created in the last few years to foster cooperation between nearby counties and cities.

But as WBAA’s Chris Morisse Vizza reports, at least two West Central Indiana mayors say the inherent instinct to compete for jobs and corporate investment is an obstacle.

More than a year before Governor Mike Pence announced his Regional Cities Initiative, Lilly Endowment Inc., awarded a $500,000 regional economic development planning grant to Tippecanoe and nearby counties.

That led to creation of the so-called Wabash Heartland Region, and a plan that Greater Lafayette Commerce members say is focused on supporting growth of existing manufacturers, worker training, and maximizing research and technology opportunities at Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College-Lafayette.

West Central Indiana government and development leaders say they considered applying for Pence’s Regional Cities Initiative, which awarded $42 million grants to each of three regions that had to raise matches of $42 million.

But ultimately, they didn’t.

Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton says Regional Cities renewed long-running conversations between government and business leaders in Tippecanoe and Montgomery counties.

But, he says, those talks died out.  And, Barton says, it proved more difficult to work together than he anticipated.

“I think we work better together than we ever have,” Barton says. “But that’s not to say that there’s probably still some pockets out there of resistance that still see that competitive piece.”

Barton adds it’s daunting to coordinate activities in multiple communities, and the region was not positioned to compete in the Regional Cities Initiative because leaders still have many issues to talk through.

Greater Lafayette Commerce President and CEO Scott Walker refused requests to record an interview about Regional Cities, which he says required appointment of a citizen-only regional development authority that could enact taxes.

Instead of defining an economic development region, Walker says local business leaders are focusing their energies on working with what he calls “affinity groups,” that is like-minded communities linked by a common interest.

For example, he says Greater Lafayette Commerce hosted a Regional Workforce Summit in September where industry, education and government leaders exchanged ideas on how to incorporate basic work skills into curricula not included in state and federal school funding metrics.

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight agrees it’s been difficult to define what constitutes an economic region.

“I have always felt like regions are not something that you dictate,” Goodnight says.

Goodnight says he thinks regions develop organically out of common interests such as commuting patterns and access to jobs, shopping and health care.

That’s why he believes Kokomo is more economically aligned with Hamilton County and northern Marion County, which are 30 to 40 minutes away on U.S. 31.

Goodnight says he would never rule out a partnership with Greater Lafayette.

But access between the two communities is limited to State Road 26, a two-lane road that has a lot of stops and starts, and is difficult to navigate during bad weather.

“So I think that makes it less likely that the synergies from both communities would fit as well as some others,” Goodnight says.  

Walker says a shared interest in moving products up and down Interstate 65 prompted Greater Lafayette Commerce to invite Frankfort Mayor Chris McBarnes to sit on its board of directors.

McBarnes says he’s excited to partner with Tippecanoe County, but couldn’t attend the Regional Workforce Summit, where he was scheduled to deliver closing remarks.

“I would have loved to have been there,” McBarnes says. “That official invitation never came to our office. With my schedule being what it is we have to have things at least a week-and-a-half or two weeks in advance.”

McBarnes says what’s good for Tippecanoe County is often good for Frankfort.

But that’s not enough to stop him from competing with his neighbors for sometimes scarce economic resources.

“I’m a competitor, and if there is a project floating around, and I believe it’s right for Frankfort, then I’m going after that,” McBarnes says. “And I’m going after it because I’m a hot dog and I love Frankfort and I love Clinton County.”

Barton says he thinks Crawfordsville and Montgomery County are trying to attract different types of investments and jobs than Lafayette and Tippecanoe County.

And sometimes, Barton says, he feels an economic pull down I-74 toward Marion County.

But whether his community leans north or south, Barton says Montgomery County isn’t in a leadership position, and must wait for a larger county to take the lead –something Barton says he hasn’t seen, yet.