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State officials laud potential of Regional Cities

With a room full of interested area elected officials and general public, state officials answered question after question regarding the Regional Cities Initiative, which Harrison County has joined on a discussion level only, during a workshop Monday afternoon at the Greater Clark County School Administrative Building in Jeffersonville.
The initiative was created in the General Assembly last year and will be administered by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to combat what they say is the biggest threat to economic development in the state: population stagnation.
A region or two will be selected later this year for matching funds from the state amounting to $84 million in a two-year period to bring economic and quality of place development to the regions.
To be selected, the region must create a Regional Development Authority to apply and, if selected, administer the program.
The authority will have no taxing power, and counties, towns or cities that join the authority will not be required to pay for anything, state officials said, answering two of the main concerns surrounding the project.
If local attorneys disagree and think it has taxing authority, then they can write it in their ordinance to make sure it does not, officials said.
The RDA is only a conduit for state funding, according to Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith.
‘It’s not how can we get in the pocketbooks of the many municipalities coming to the table,’ Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, said.
If a municipality agrees to pay for a project or portion of a project, however, they will be held accountable for that funding.
Another concern brought up centered on what was described as a lack of administrative control on the RDA, because it will consist of just five members.
Officials said the RDA will only be administering a plan approved by the region, so it won’t make any decisions the member entities aren’t aware of or don’t support.
The intention is for the five members appointed to the RDA to be regionally-focused and not represent one certain municipality.
Depauw resident Phil Smith, Harrison County’s representative to the regional cities discussion, asked about specific verbiage in the RDA legislation regarding CEDIT money.
Eric Shields, policy director for the Indiana Economic Development Corp., said the language was in there to address possible RDAs that were established before the Regional Cities Initiative was put in place.
‘There’s no financial obligation to join it,’ Shields said. ‘You’re only obligated on cash if you say so.’
The proposed plan for the region will have projects that take part in, or will affect, Harrison, Floyd, Washington, Clark and Scott counties.
Chesser said other regions that have or plan to create a Regional Development Authority include Fort Wayne, South Bend, Kokomo, Indianapolis and Evansville.
‘The goal is to be competitive,’ she said.
Chesser began Monday’s presentation with a quote from the Frank O’Bannon Memorial in Corydon:
‘Just as our ancestors with their communities helped shape us, so we will leave our fingerprints on the world that future generations inherit … Take your unique gifts and needs, add them to the mix of life, and know that with these exchanges we are nourished … There is no limit to where we can go when we go together. For it is in the sharing of experiences that we become a real community.’
Chesser said the economy is changing and each community is interdependent on the other in our region.
‘This is Southern Indiana’s moment,’ she said, referring to the bridges projects, River Ridge development and the possible regional cities initiative.
‘People are starting to notice Southern Indiana, but we’ve known it’s a great place all along,’ Chesser said. ‘We have an opportunity to work together to build a better community for ourselves.’
State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said the initiative was a no-brainer and has the potential to be a transformational opportunity.
‘The cost of doing nothing is far greater than the cost of pursuing this,’ he said.
Clere said the initiative is one thing, but there’s something much bigger going on and that’s the bringing of communities together that maybe haven’t been in the past.
‘I hope we get to the point of putting in an application, but, even if we don’t, I think the process and formation of this structure could be transformative in nature,’ he said.
Indiana District 46 Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, spoke to the need to attract and retain talent within the state as the driving factor behind the initiative. He said in his nearly 25 years of political life, he thought this region should, and could be, a giant.
‘Let’s make sure the train doesn’t leave without us,’ he said.
State Rep. Steven R. Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, said he thinks the return on investment for the regional cities projects will be better than any place in the state.
‘I would even say east of the Mississippi,’ he said.
Smith said the idea, from the state’s standpoint, is fairly simple: to partner with a region or regions to help attract talent and, in turn, economic growth.
‘You’re driving this … This is not a ‘thou shalt’; it’s a ‘you can if you want to’,’ he said.
Smith said there are areas out there gunning for this and he hopes this region is as well.
The general guideline for the project funding is 20 percent local match, 20 percent from the state and 60 percent private.
The total cost of the projects associated with the plan, which spans eight to 10 years at least, would need to be about $210 million.
Chesser said they’re under the gun with only 40 days (Aug. 31 deadline) to create an RDA and submit an application. She then asked all the county/town councils in the area to pass an ordinance establishing an RDA at their next meeting.
The RDA does not require a population minimum, as was previously believed to be 200,000. It only needs cross-county cooperation.
From there, the executive body would approve the plan and appoint the five members to the RDA.
The Harrison County Board of Commissioners and county council will have a joint meeting tomorrow (Thursday) at 5 p.m. to discuss the initiative and review Monday’s workshop.
Besides Smith, other Harrison Countians at the workshop included County Councilman Gary Davis, Harrison County Economic Development Corp. Director Darrell Voelker and State Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon.