Dozens of people are working to make Henry County a shining star in Indiana.

A joint effort between New Castle, Knightstown and larger Henry County – collectively called “Safe and Welcome” – is in the finals to be named the 2019 Stellar Community.

The Stellar Community designation is awarded each year by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA).

The Stellar Communities program started in 2011 as a “multi-year, multi-million dollar investment initiative” for rural Indiana communities.

In 2018, OCRA announced the Stellar designation would be awarded to regions, rather than individual cities or towns.

The local “Safe and Welcome” group is in competition with: “Constellation of Starke,” which consists of Hamlet, Knox, North Judson and Starke County; “Jay! Region.” which is comprised of the Dunkirk, Portland, Pennville, Redkey and Jay County; and, “Marshall County Crossroads,” which consists of Argos, Bourbon, Bremen, Culver, Plymouth and Marshall County.

Last year’s two Stellar recipients received $15 million grant to put their regional development plans into action. OCRA announced this week there will only one Stellar designee this year.

New Castle resident Cathy Hamilton wrote the original letter of intent to get Henry County in the running for the 2019 Stellar contest.

Hamilton said there are 32 people working to bring this title to the county and its communities.

“A rising tide raises all boats, not just New Castle, Knightstown and Henry County,” Hamilton said. “This could be a game changer for this whole region.”

Hamilton said winning a Stellar Community designation will open more opportunities for the county. She said that’s just a bonus, though.

“Getting to (the) finalist state is a blessing, but certainly not the end game,” Hamilton said. “The real prize is, by the time we complete the application to be a Stellar designee, we will have created a phenomenal strategic plan for our region.” 

OCRA said this sort of local collaboration could help community and economic development, promote local and regional partnerships and assist in implementing innovative solutions to region-specific issues.

“Some of it’s already going on, some of it’s in progress,” Hamilton said.

One key reason Knightstown and New Castle were included with Henry County is that all three communities have already completed their own individual comprehensive plans.

Each plan included blueprints to improve the communities by increasing the quality of life, repairing roads and sidewalks, cleaning up residential areas and lowering crime.

Or, simply, making the region “Safe and Welcome.”

Hamilton said the current conversations started when New Castle applied for and ultimately missed out on a Stellar Community title in 2012. Since then, community leaders and volunteers have worked to put their dreams on paper.

“I put words to dreams shared with me over time,” Hamilton said. “Now, we move those dreams to action.”

Some of those dreams include expanding broadband internet access throughout the county and increasing tourism to the area.

The local Stellar Grant Committee is working with Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute to continue telling Henry County’s story. Hamilton said this process of getting expert outside help is “the kind of stuff you can’t buy.”

The local strategic plan that is born from the Stellar Communities process will also help collaborative efforts with the Eastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Hamilton said.

“The Stellar designation is all about a journey for making a community or region,” she said.

Representatives from OCRA were in New Castle last week to talk about arts and tourism. The Stellar Grant Committee met with BSU representatives Wednesday at the Hoosier Gym.

In mid-July, OCRA will award the “Safe and Welcome” region a $20,000 grant to help create the strategic plan Hamilton says will serve as the backbone of the final Stellar submission in September.

The local committee will continue refining the Stellar application throughout the summer, putting “flesh on the bone,” Hamilton said.

OCRA will announce the 2019 Stellar Region in December.

© Copyright 2019, The Courier-Times, New Castle, IN.