Seven regional groups seek part of $84M from Pence-backed plan

An “innovation district” in South Bend to spur technology advances. Downtown revitalization in Fort Wayne. A 35-mile rapid bus system in Indianapolis. A 24/7 downtown entertainment and recreation hub in Evansville.

These are some of the visions that local officials are proposing to help lure top talent to their areas and improve quality of life there.

Teams from seven regions across Indiana submitted plans totaling $3.8 billion to the state’s new Regional Cities Initiative project, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. announced Tuesday. The proposals contain ideas for about 400 new projects.

The regional cities project became one of Gov. Mike Pence's key legislative initiatives this year, as he tries to spur economic development in the state. The goal is to help each region of Indiana develop a “unique national brand” to become a better destination for talent.

“I am truly inspired by the collaboration and action we have witnessed in our Indiana regions during this process,” Pence said in a written statement. “With these tremendous visions for the future of our communities, I am confident that Indiana’s dedication and commitment to quality of place initiatives will establish our regions as global destinations, attracting top businesses and top talent to fill the jobs we continue to create in the Hoosier state.”

The groups will learn if their projects were chosen later this year.

Two regions are to receive up to $84 million in state matching funds under the initiative, which was approved by the Indiana General Assembly during last spring's budget-writing session. The money will come from a tax amnesty program the Indiana Department of Revenue is planning to conduct this fall.

A committee of artists, tech company leaders, higher education officials and others will review the applications, hear presentations from each region and then present funding recommendation to the IEDC at its fourth quarter meeting, according to agency spokeswoman Abby Gras.

Local officials said a key driver for their interest in the regional cities project is the chance to help their communities spur population growth.

Indiana’s population of working-age adults is projected to go into a temporary decline as baby boomers, who will all reach traditional retirement age by 2030, exit the workforce, according to the Indiana Business Research Center.

And 80 percent of Indiana’s population growth over the last decade—from 6 million to 6.4 million—is from the birth rate outpacing the death rate, according to the IEDC.

“Because of the impacts of retiring Baby Boomers and lagging growth among Millennials, our labor force will actually shrink and our gross domestic product and wages will stagnate (during the next decade),” John Sampson, president of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, said in a letter to the IEDC. “Northeast Indiana knows it can, and it must, do better.”

The Fort Wayne region’s plan is called the Road to One Million, with a goal of increasing the population from nearly 780,000 today to 1 million by 2031.

The plan for Southwest Indiana, which is anchored by Evansville, includes a goal of raising its population by 70,000 by 2025.

Local officials said the initiative provides a good opportunity to get there.

“More than ever,” said the Southwest region’s plan, “the need to build an equally great place to live along with a nationally recognized brand to keep the talent home is a prerequisite for a healthy economy.”

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