When Ball State University researcher Beth Neu produced her study on the qualitative impact of the Regional Cities Initiative, one thing in particular impressed her: the area’s level of collaboration.
“There’s county buy-in and city buy-in and you had to get all those county councils across the region to all vote in favor of it too, and that was no small feat,” she said.
A close second was how successfully the regions spread the wealth, with smaller towns and counties getting their fair share. There was a lot of concern going in that the bigger cities in each region would grab the lion’s share of the funding, but the initiative actually funded important projects in the smaller communities as well.
Created in 2015, the Regional Cities Initiative provided $42 million in economic development funds to each of three regions: the 11 counties of northeast Indiana; southwest Indiana in and around Evansville; and north central Indiana, including St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties.
Phase one of the study, released in December 2017, found that the initiative helped fund 64 projects, with a focus on the quality of life projects that improve the regions’ appeal by creating better places to live, work, play and visit.
The second phase of the study, commissioned by the Metro Chamber Alliance, was released Oct. 4.
Neu lives and works in Fort Wayne and serves as the director of public policy and engagement for BSU’s Indiana Communities Institute. She interviewed more than 30 economic development and chamber of commerce leaders, who had good things to say about the infusion of cash from the initiative.
“I expected it to be positive but it was overwhelmingly positive,” Neu said. The only complaint she heard, and not necessarily related to Regional Cities, was the amount of road construction going on.
“It would be like, ‘Is there a street in Fort Wayne that isn’t torn up right now?’” she said.
In addition to interviews with local officials, Neu made a point of asking everyday people what their impressions of the initiative were.
“I tried to get sort of a general impression from the average citizen, rather than just the leaders or the people who were involved,” she said.
One other lament Neu heard was that the money was distributed so quickly that a lot of worthwhile projects missed out because they were just not ready in time. There was a general consensus that financial resources should be found for the Regional Development Authorities formed to disperse the money and manage the programs to continue their work.
“They could see this really put in place the opportunity to do more things down the road,” she said.
The projects total more than $1.2 billion in investment, $835.5 million of which is private-sector investment. The state has committed $122 million to these projects to date, of which $54.7 million would be returned to the state in the first three years through increased tax revenue.
In addition, the investment is expected to lead to 7,960 new Indiana residents over the next eight years, above and beyond current population growth projections. Taken together, the initial net state investment of $72 million and the 7,960 new residents produce a metric of $9,045 per new resident.
“This figure is consistent with historical measures for job-creation incentives at the state level, but produces something even more valuable in new residents,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State. “While this study shows positive initial results for this one-time influx of state investment, sustaining the existing momentum and expanding it statewide will require further contributions by state government.”
Across the three regions, the Regional Cities funding helped provide the funds to bridge the gap between a project that was desirable and a project that was doable. In Mishawaka, for example, the money helped get a large residential development that had been in the planning stages for more than a decade finally get underway.
“They’ve been ready to go since 2002 and could just never get a developer until they could fund that gap,” Neu said.
In Elkhart, funding helped build a large aquatics facility that will attract swim meets from a wide region, and in South Bend it is assisting in the redevelopment of the old Studebaker manufacturing facility.
The Regional Cities program was a game-changer for the South Bend-Elkhart region, said Jeff Rea, president and chief executive officer of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“It served as a critical catalyst for key quality-of-place improvements across our region that are driving economic growth and helping us attract new people to the region,” Rea said. “But more importantly, it has helped us instill a new culture of regional cooperation and collaboration that is now part of our DNA. Years from now, we’ll look back at this initiative as the program that changed the trajectory of our region.”
In northeast Indiana, The Landing project and the riverfront redevelopment project in downtown Fort Wayne are among those that received Regional Cities funding. So were the Thunder Ice Arena at Trine University in Angola, a child care facility in North Manchester, and numerous trail development efforts around the region.
For all three regions, “this was just the first step,” Neu said. “It was a big step. It was good to take that first step and make it a big step initially because without it, they’d just kind of limped along. They needed that influx of dollars.”