Chamber goals

The Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana again will highlight the expansion of early childhood care and education, broadband and the conversion of U.S. 33 to a freeway along with eight new items when the Indiana Legislature reconvenes in 2021.

The 14-item agenda for the chamber, which advocates for the economic interests of 11 counties in the region, has been approved by its members.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the need for a couple of related items, one of which is a “comprehensive analysis of all the rules and regulations that were either suspended or implemented during the worst of the pandemic emergency” as needed to reestablish a competitive business climate, Bill Konyha, chamber president and CEO, said.

Most of the chamber’s member businesses are unaware of all the rules and regulations that have been published. “The Legislature is telling us they’re going to do a review, and we support that review.”

The chamber will also support a shield employers who followed all COVID-19 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines against litigation if their employees contracted the virus.

“A lot of businesses who were deemed essential continued to work through it,” Konyha said.

Some nonessential businesses are still closed but will be reopening.

“We are concerned there may be residual infections, and when we have good employers who are following all the guidelines and all the regulations and an employee gets sick, that’s an act of God; it’s not anything anybody can control, and we want to shield” employers, he said.

“Bad actors” who aren’t following guidelines shouldn’t be protected, he said.

The chamber is also looking to redefine entertainment centers as those with 600 seats rather than 800.

“One of the reasons for this is we have a number of of theaters in the region and in the state who received Regional Cities money or Interstellar Community funds who may also have 3-way liquor license. ... This is not about helping them get a liquor license. It’s about shielding them from issues revolving around juvenile loitering.”

For example, Wabash’s Eagles Theatre went through a $19 million renovation and has a 3-way liquor license. However, it only uses its bar occasionally during adults-only events. Outside of those events, it would like to be able to rope off the bar. Without being classified as an entertainment complex, it would be required to build walls and install doors around the bar area, taking up lobby space. Some years ago, the chamber worked to lower the seat number to 800 to benefit Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theatre, Konyha said.

The new change will require an amendment to Indiana code.

It also wants to support the adoption of additional economic incentives for transformational projects with regional significance” just as a matter of cause.

“We have absolutely nothing in mind,” Konyha said. It appears in much of the chamber’s literature, but it’s never before been adopted as a policy priority.

With attracting 21st-century talent to the region, the chamber wants to look at ways of streamlining procedures for professionals to come to Indiana.

“Specifically, we’re looking for teachers and licensed personnel who are licensed in early childhood development, early childhood education.”

Konyha said he’s learned that site selectors are now required by their clients to seek out cities and states that embrace early childhood education and he expects that to continue. Indiana licensing should not be a problem for someone coming from an adjoining state where they are already licensed, he said.

Last year the House passed House Bill 1008, called Occupational License Endorsement, but it didn’t get through the Senate because it was too broad, Konyha said. The new endeavor would narrow it to early childhood education.

A new priority will support social, racial and economic justice. “We expect a number of bills to be introduced that may touch on any or all of those areas,” Konyha said. The priority streamlines the process of looking at those issues.

On the secondary education side, many institutions expect to see their budgets hit but the chamber wants to ensure that they maintain their scholarship funding. Many of their students who access those funds are the first in their families to attend college, he said. The state provided $1.4 billion in 2020-21 funding to seven public college systems in Indiana. The scholarship dollars primarily come from the Frank O’Bannon Grant, named for the governor who died in office in 2003.

Another new priority related to the pandemic is the support of telehealth and telephonic services and fees related to the treatment of all health care services, including mental health, substance abuse, expert consultation, and specialty care. The chamber will look at any bills related to telehealth to expand those services, “up to and including providing the funding for them,” he said.

It will again submit its support to create Heritage Commerce Districts in cities and towns with populations under 25,000 that will invest state money rather than federal money in grants to qualified applicants for facades, roofs, windows and interiors in Main Street-certified areas. The state money doesn’t require that 51% of the population be at or below low-income guidelines, which in the past has prevented many rural areas from accessing the money. It’s the third or fourth time that the chamber has introduced it, and it’s not hopeful again that it will pass. However, Konyha said it may be passed next year and funded the year after.

It will also try again to get continued funding for the Regional Development Authority, which administered money from the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative for transformative community projects. The proposal seeks to allow any city or county that is part of RDA to be able to adopt a food and beverage tax if it chooses to, but which would require that half of the revenue generated to go to funding the RDA. The RDA is an 11-county organization with its directors elected by the 16 mayors and county commissioners. “We’d like to provide an income source for them so it can keep working,” Konyha said.

Those efforts are in addition to its major endeavor to see broadband extended throughout the region. The chamber and other groups worked with the region’s REMCs on a plan in which the REMCs would be able to install fiber to accommodate legitimate high-speed broadband services.

Earlier this year, it requested $20 million to conduct an environmental study related to its other major focus, U.S. 33’s conversion from the Ohio state line to Valparaiso, which would get the ball rolling on the project. The money would come from the state’s highway transportation fund, not from newly sought money.

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