Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana

IndianaBlogImageOn Tuesday, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) announced $126 million in state matching funds to support three regions in pursuing their visions for growth. The Regional Cities Initiative was developed based on a study of regions that have experienced transformational growth, performed last year by Fourth Economy, and is being funded by a tax amnesty program. Tuesday’s announcement was the culmination of months of planning on the part of Indiana’s regions, and Fourth Economy was fortunate enough to facilitate and advise on the strategy for two of the winning regions in those efforts – Northeast Indiana (home to Fort Wayne) and Michiana (home to South Bend). Here are a few lessons learned from our work helping multi-county, cross-sector partnerships identify and prioritize quality-of-life investments meant to attract and retain population.

1. Go Big or Go Home

Both of these plans are built around a key, large-scale redevelopment opportunity. In Fort Wayne, this is the creation of a destination waterfront encompassing 310 acres and including parks, beaches, an education center, shopping and dining; and in South Bend, it’s the redevelopment of over 1 million square feet vacant Studebaker factory buildings into the Renaissance District, the Midwest’s largest mixed-use technology park.

These are projects that, while based in the regions’ core cities, are recognizable to everyone in the region as projects that will provide region-wide benefit, increase the national profile of the region, and drive economic growth. They are exciting projects that are taking incredibly underutilized assets (and in the case of the Studebaker development, in many ways a liability), and turning them into hubs of energy, creativity, and commerce. They are the projects that everyone knows needs to happen, but no one feels certain are possible.

Given their scale and impact, they will require an incredible amount of political support, public subsidy, and patience. For those reasons, community support is critical, and that support is more easily won by rallying around a big vision.

2. Share the Love

Part of the reason that the regions of Northeast Indiana and Michiana have been energized by the big visions laid out in their Regional Cities plans, is that regional leadership has been explicit about ensuring that the projects are connected to complementary investments throughout the region.

In Northeast Indiana, that means a regional trail system to connect residents to the Fort Wayne riverfront, and investment in other riverfront amenities throughout the region, such as canoe launches and riverfront parks. In Michiana, it’s a network of innovation districts throughout the region that will be supported by the Renaissance District, but with investments in their own density, connectivity, amenities, and productivity.

3. Trust and Transparency Pay Dividends

Collaboration at this level – beyond borders and sectors – does not come natural. This process asked us to produce a plan that was both bold and quite detailed in a matter of months. It would not have been possible if the regional organizations had not been laying the groundwork for years prior. Nevertheless, the level of collaboration required for this process was unprecedented, and the success of Northeast Indiana and Michiana would not have been possible without a strong focus on building trust and transparency into the process.

In Northeast Indiana, building trust was step number one. We began the process by organizing a bus tour so that everyone involved could visit each county, simply to get to know each other and gain a better understanding of what was happening in each county. For many stakeholders, this was the first time that they had been in some of the far-reaching corners of their region. Investing this time up front paid dividends down the road; it was much easier for the region to come together to support a project in one community when they could envision the impact that the project would make in that community.

Transparency took many forms throughout the process, but it most often took the form of communicating often, about everything, across multiple channels. In Michiana, public meetings were held throughout the process, engaging over 1,000 people. In addition to in-person events and meetings, multiple marketing activities and media were also used to notify the public throughout the process. Project leaders utilized social media to provide information, opportunities for engagement and updates about the process; and a website was developed about the initiative, where the project application form was posted for public access.

To be certain, these efforts took dedicated resources, time, and thoughtful planning, but they paid dividends. County commissioners could easily vote to approve the final plan knowing their constituents had been informed of and engaged in the process from start to finish.

For more on the Regional Cities Initiative and the winning proposals, visit http://indianaregionalcities.com/.