JEFFERSONVILLE — With Clark County's buy-in, Southern Indiana now meets the minimum requirements to form a regional development authority and apply for state funding.
The Clark County Council voted 5-0 during its meeting Monday to form a regional development authority, after hearing from more than 20 local leaders all in favor of the project. Council members Brandon Schiller and Steve Doherty were absent.
"I think the next step for growth and expansion for our region would be an RDA, is my personal opinion," Councilman Terry Conway said.
Clark County joins the Floyd County Council, which passed a similar measure last month, and Scott County, which never rescinded its RDA when it was formed two years ago. The area represented by an RDA must have a 200,000 minimum population.
An RDA is a five-member board appointed by participating counties that is tasked with spending funding from Indiana's Regional Cities Initiative, the brainchild of former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence two years ago.
The idea was to leverage public dollars for private investment in projects that enhance regions' economic development and "quality of place," judged by the amenities that attract and retain residents.
Seven regions around the state formed RDAs and applied for funding. Three were chosen to receive $42 million awarded for projects to be build over a decade. The goal is that projects are funded 20 percent from Regional Cities money, 20 percent from municipal, county or foundation money and the remaining 60 percent through private investment.
Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of economic development organization One Southern Indiana, said the $126 million in state funding awarded to RDAs since 2015 has leveraged more than $800 million from the private sector.
"I really believe that is following the practice of private investment follows public investment," she said.
The second round of funding this year is only $30 million, and Dant Chesser said the state hasn't announced how many RDAs will be awarded funding or when applications are due.
Southern Indiana couldn't garner enough support two years ago to form an RDA. Only Scott and Clark counties voted in favor, and Clark rescinded its RDA ordinance after the application deadline passed.
The Regional Cities Initiative drew massive opposition from local taxpayers, who were wary of giving a non-elected board power over so much money.
Since then, the Indiana legislature has changed one significant power given to RDAs — they can no longer exercise eminent domain.
Councilman Danny Yost said if that wasn't the case, he probably wouldn't vote in favor of forming an RDA this time around.
"The eminent domain thing is huge," he said.
Councilman Brian Lenfert calculated that $126 million in taxpayer dollars allocated for Regional Cities projects in 2015 equaled $2.2 million from Clark County alone.
This year's funding will represent more than $500,000 in Clark dollars "that I'd at least like to get back to the table to get to our community," Lenfert said.
In her plea, Dant Chesser brought 23 business, government and economic leaders to voice support for Southern Indiana's participation. The message from supporters was clear — if the region doesn't build its workforce, it will lose its competitive edge in attracting economic investments.
Debbie Smith, manager of America Place Business Park, said her company has invested more than $40 million because it sees opportunity in Southern Indiana. But without people to fill the jobs, she sees progress coming to a halt.
"The only thing that keeps us from investing more money ... is the labor force," Smith said. "We have lost three global Fortune 500 companies in the last year and a half."
Brooks Howell, a Hanover College student, said he wants to see "Southern Indiana put on the map."
"I think the biggest thing is keeping talent in the area," he told the board. "So many of my peers ... they talk about how their goals are to land jobs in place like Indy, Louisville, Chicago."
Dant Chesser will approach the Washington and Harrison county councils next to see if they would like to join. She's also heard Jefferson County, which wasn't approached two years ago, is interested.
Even if none want to join, Dant Chesser believes a three-county region in Louisville Metro is competitive enough to win funding from the state.
Once it's clear how many counties will join, leaders must decide how board appointments will be made. Two years ago, it was assumed each county would appoint one board member.
But appointment allocation for an RDA with any more or less than five counties won't be as clear-cut. Ultimately, county commissioners have authority to make appointments.
Dant Chesser also said the region must come up with a list of projects it would like funded. She told the council she doesn't believe the list two years ago "was properly vetted in the greater community."