Knox County officials on Friday took the first step in applying to be named as the state's first regional Stellar Communities winner.
Mayor Joe Yochum told members of the Knox County Development Corp. on Thursday morning that he was partnering with Bicknell mayor Thomas Estabrook and county elected officials in applying once again for the state's coveted Stellar designation, which could open the way for millions of dollars to flow in to be spent on a variety of community improvements.
Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch announced in February that the Stellar Communities Designation Program, coordinated through the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, would undergo a major overhaul for 2018.
The program — which once upon a time shelled out millions of dollars to communities to make quality of life improvements — will now take a more regional approach to development, specifically "emphasizing collaboration between neighboring towns, cities and counties."
Yochum said thought was given to partnering with previous Stellar applicant Washington, but, in the end, a local approach was found more favorable.
“With everything going on in Knox County right now, we thought it only made sense for us to work together with Bicknell and the county on this next Stellar application,” Yochum said. “A lot of things are coming together, and hopefully, we'll have a really good application.”
The group's letter of intent had to be submitted to state officials by 4 p.m. on Friday, Yochum said. They'll find out later this month whether they've been selected as a finalist.
If they have, then the really hard work begins as the three entities will need to work together to submit a regional development plan that outlines specific improvements they want to make.
For the city's part, Yochum said he will largely look to last year's application, which included an expansion of the Riverwalk as well as a transformation of the Gimbel Corner into an urban park.
Stellar applications must also include some sort of housing component, but Riverview Lofts — a riverfront affordable housing complex that was included in the city's application last year — is already moving forward after developer Andy Myszak received the federal tax credits needed to fund it in February.
This time around, Yochum said he'll look to Bicknell as they've got multiple lots already cleared by the recent demolition of eyesore homes. With money from the state's Hardest Hit Blight Elimination Fund, Bicknell has torn down more than 20 dilapidated, abandoned houses.
Estabrook said that will be the key improvement made in Bicknell should the county be successful in its bid.
“That is there and ready for us to grab hold of,” Estabrook said. “Our blight program has made that very attainable for us because getting the property is sometimes the hardest part.”
And that many new houses, Estabrook said, would go long way in improving the community. Not only is the city's housing stock suffering, its tax base is, too.
“So if we could find ourselves in a position where developers could get those tax credits and build those homes,” he said. “That's going to both improve our tax base and the viability of our neighborhoods.”
Estabrook said he was also “excited to collaborate” with Yochum and county elected officials in applying for Stellar.
“I don't know of another time when there was this much coordination between the units of government,” he said, “and it's really a great deal for all of us.”
County council president Bob Lechner, too, said he was “encouraged and excited” to partner with Vincennes and Bicknell in this process.
“This is a wonderful time,” he said, “and wonderful things are going to happen.”
But as for the rest of what improvements could be included in the county's Stellar plan, Yochum said those details are still to be determined.
They'll begin thinking more seriously about quality of life enhancements if the application is selected to move forward.
The Stellar Community Program is a multi-agency partnership designed, at least in the beginning, to recognize smaller Hoosier communities that have identified plans for quality of life and economic development improvements. Since its inception in 2011, the state has awarded nearly $90 million to communities, including Princeton, Huntingburg and Bedford.