Indiana communities that hope to get an economic development boost through participation in the state’s Stellar Communities program can no longer go it alone.
Beginning this year, the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, which had seen interest in and applications for the program dwindle over the past few years, will require a more regional approach. Applications must come from a partnership of two or more communities, or communities and counties.
Both Gov. Eric Holcomb and Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch support the idea of a more regional economic-development approach, said Jodi Golden, OCRA’s executive director.
“I think it makes rural Indiana more competitive when they can work together and rely on one another,” Golden told Business Weekly Feb. 6.
In 2014, there were 14 communities who applied for the Stellar Communities designation. By 2017, that had dropped to just seven.
“We hope it will increase participation. It is a lot of work, but one thing we hear from communities that have participated as a finalist or a designee is that although it is a lot of work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, it’s been worth the effort because of the camaraderie and collaboration they’ve built within their communities. We certainly expect and hope that will continue with this regional effort,” Golden said.
Stellar Communities was launched in 2011 to help coordinate funding from federal sources and state programs to fast-track economic-development plans in rural communities. It is not a grant program.
The process begins with the submission of a letter of intent, and then moves through a series of strategic-planning steps as communities identify key projects and estimate the costs involved. A group of finalists is selected to go even deeper into the process. Evaluators make community visits and then winners are determined.
Golden expects that under the new program, communities will choose their own partners for their joint application. Some communities are already asking how to form those partnerships.
“This is a change in the way some communities think,” Golden said. “Realize it’s going to be a flip of the switch.”
Two new assets have been added to the program this year. Ball State University will come in and work with finalists to help them recognize their strengths individually and how they can work together and combine assets for their regional effort.
Once the winners, or designees, are selected, the Purdue Center for Regional Development will help them implement their plans.
Rather than starting the process with the submission of a standard letter of intent as before, a new online application system will ask a series of questions about the partnership and its plans. Applications must be filed by April 6. A video and other materials explaining the partnership and the application process area available on OCRA’s website, in.gov/ocra.
The judging on the bids submitted also will be different because of the regional approach. “We want to look at how they benefit each other, how they impact regionally instead of just individually, how they cooperate,” Golden said.
While the previous program chose winners in two categories, based on population, the partners all compete in a single category for the two winning spots. Former finalists and designees can apply for the new program, as long as they bring in a partner.
The city of Wabash was a finalist in 2013 and then was named one of the state’s two stellar winners in 2014. That amounted to 30 months spent on a comprehensive economic development plan — but it paid off in other honors down the road.
The city made the quarter finals of the America’s Best Communities competition in 2015; and in 2016, it was selected from among 10,000 applications as the winner of Deluxe Corp.’s Small Business Revolution contest. More significantly, it has accomplished many of the economic-development projects identified through the Stellar Communities process and its downtown is enjoying a renewal that has received national notice.
The city of Decatur was a Stellar finalist twice, in 2014 and 2015. Although it didn’t win, the preparation and planning involved “helped us clarify and articulate our identity,” Cameron Collier, a city council member and member of the Greater Decatur Initiative, said in 2014.
Angola was a finalist in 2013 but didn’t enter the following year. “It’s a very time-consuming process,” noted Mayor Richard Hickman. “If you’re going to do this, you really have to jump in.”