“We can get there from here.”

That’s the mantra of the five-county Eastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, which hopes to add a sixth member to its group – Henry County.

Monday night, New Castle City Council members heard both a pitch and a promise from EIRPC officials.

The pitch was all about the value Henry County could receive by joining. The promise? This organization is much, much different than the last regional group Henry County belonged to – the Eastern Indiana Development District, where funds were stolen and little benefit derived.

Steve Higginbotham was one of three presenters Monday night and said Henry County would benefit, particularly where the need for housing is concerned.

Higginbotham, director of facilities and development for Wayne County, outlined the “SET” Economic Development Plan and discussed a housing study the five member counties conducted.

The “SET” plan – Stronger Economies Together – focuses on six major goals for the counties to collaborate on together:

• Improve the climate for an Advanced Materials Manufacturing Cluster;

• Recognize the region’s deep agricultural heritage and the need to pursue value-added processing as a complement to agricultural production.

• Recognize the importance of healthcare as both a regional employer and as a prerequisite for growth of both the population and the regional economy.

• Acknowledge the need for infrastructure improvements to accomplish goals.

• Acknowledge that “Quality of Place” determines whether current residents are willing to stay in the region and whether new people are willing to move here.

The most important goal, necessary for the other five?

“We must build trust, engage in meaningful communication and collaborate fully in order to achieve each of the goals,” the SET plan stated.

Higginbotham said the EIRPC also wants to help local governments find ways at making housing development more attractive in each county.

“Government is an obstacle for developers to come and build in our community,” Higginbotham said. “What can we do to cut through some of that red tape to get developers to come to our region?”

The idea of tax increment financing for housing projects to help with infrastructure is taking off faster than expected. A bill authored by Sen. Jeff Raatz (R-Centerville) breezed through a committee hearing this week in a 12-1 vote and now heads to the Senate floor

“This is a big deal,” Higginbotham said. “When we talk to Realtors and developers, that housing sweet spot – the houses people wanted to buy – are between $100,000 and $150,000 range and infrastructure was a killer. By the time the developer put in the infrastructure and the cost of building the house, there was no profit. So they don’t build these kind of houses. And that’s the kind of house we need for the employee to work in this area.”

Jeff Plasterer, the EIRPC executive director, said Rushville has already purchased 50 acres within the city limits and is working to put in infrastructure.

“If we’re successful with this TIF bill, that will be one avenue to help them pay back the infrastructure costs,” Plasterer said. “Our thinking is a community could enter into a development agreement with a home developer that would say we’re going to provide these lots with this infrastructure at this cost per lot and in return, you’re going to build this kind of house and sell it at this cost.”

Meanwhile, a team effort on broadband would make a big difference in the attractiveness of Eastern Indiana, according to Higginbotham.

“When we asked the employee who does not live here one of the amenities that they wanted was broadband,” Higginbotham said. “It rated right up there with a washer and dryer. We need to make the region broadband ready, because it is an amenity that is important to those folks who relocate here.”

City Council members hope to change the collective minds of the Henry County Council, which voted 4-3 against joining the group, citing financial concerns. Cost to join would be $18,000, with the city and county each paying $9,000. 

“It’s sad the county didn’t jump on board with this,” Councilman Jeff Hancock said. “This is a great opportunity. I know finances are difficult, but they could have found a way to come up with the money.”

© Copyright 2020, The Courier-Times, New Castle, IN.