November 15, 2015
Plans for the Regional Cities Initiative Are Revealing
The selection committee last week announced three finalists for the first round of the Regional Cities Initiative. There is a lot to be gleaned from the way Hoosier regions approached the process. There were seven applicants and almost one more. Here’s my brief analysis of these plans.
The one project that didn’t make the deadline was an effort to pull together the Indiana suburbs of Louisville. This laid the groundwork for a future regional plan. Though this region didn't get the votes needed to make the formal application, it is worth noting that this is one of the more difficult regions to pull together because the prospects of Floyd and Clark counties are so different. Still, running 25 miles of a 26-mile marathon is a real achievement, and all the residents of southern Indiana need this process to continue.
The two regional proposals surrounding Muncie and Terre Haute were clearly the most hastily prepared plans. This need not have been the case. The IEDC president publicly urged community and elected leaders to begin the process in the fall of 2013 and the extra year and a half would've benefited both groups. Both places struggled to get the minimum votes to participate, and, in one region, the largest employer played no meaningful role. Financing details for both are hazy, making this look more like a grant request than a strategic plan. To be fair, the other regions have been doing these things for fifteen years and both of these plans were pieced together in fifteen weeks. That in itself is why the economic prospects of these places remain among the poorest in the state.
The Indy and Northwest Indiana proposals feature really fabulous transportation plans. Places that attract lots of people have congestion problems, which much of the rest of the state would like to have. The Regional Cities Initiative isn’t the right place to fix public transportation.
The most astonishing plan was organized around South Bend and Elkhart/Goshen. Leaders there heeded wise counsel and put together a highly meritorious effort that built on more than a decade of quality of place improvements. This region is very heterogeneous and has tens of thousands of workers crossing county borders each day, yet suffers too little collaboration. This effort is rightfully one of the three finalists.
I think it clear the best two plans are from the greater Fort Wayne and Evansville areas, the other two finalists. Both places are building on more than a decade of successful regional development and quality of place improvements. Today, Fort Wayne is a widely recognized national leader in these efforts. The only reasonable criticism for these projects may be that Fort Wayne was too cautious in projecting private investment and Evansville too bold.
In the end, the final selection process isn't simply about leveraging investment or generating ROI. Instead the goal is to help the place that will attract the most households to Indiana over the next generation. That is what the state desperately needs. We also need future iterations of this Regional Cities Initiative.
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