Tina Peterson, CEO of Regional Opportunity Initiatives, speaks to a group of government and nonprofit leaders in Brown County about the county possibly applying for a READI grant with the 11-county Indiana Uplands region. After attending this meeting on June 24, the county commissioners, town council, county redevelopment commission and schools representatives present planned to try to get their groups to sign a resolution in support of this READI partnership. SARA CLIFFORD | THE DEMOCRAT
Tina Peterson, CEO of Regional Opportunity Initiatives, speaks to a group of government and nonprofit leaders in Brown County about the county possibly applying for a READI grant with the 11-county Indiana Uplands region. After attending this meeting on June 24, the county commissioners, town council, county redevelopment commission and schools representatives present planned to try to get their groups to sign a resolution in support of this READI partnership. SARA CLIFFORD | THE DEMOCRAT
It looked as if Brown County and Nashville might not engage in an opportunity to get up to $50 million in regional grant funding. The timeline was too short, town and county leaders in the room said. It was happening so fast. There were still so many unanswered questions.

By the end of a READI discussion on June 24, the mood had changed. A poll was taken, and nearly everyone in the room raised a hand to say that Brown County should make a go at it, applying as part of the 11-county Indiana Uplands Region.

The Brown County Commissioners planned a special meeting for 2 p.m. Monday, June 28 to vote on committing Brown County to “move forward with ROI (Regional Opportunity Initiatives) and Radius Indiana in the creation of a READI Regional Plan to submit to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.”

The Nashville Town Council, Brown County Redevelopment Commission and Brown County school board all passed resolutions supporting it last week.

Brown County and Nashville had received offers from at least three regional groups to join them to apply for up to $50 million per region through the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI). Gov. Eric Holcomb introduced the READI program in May.

To get READI funding, at least two contiguous counties must self-identify as a region and develop a plan identifying the region’s vision for its future, along with strategies and projects to achieve that vision. The state has a pool of $500 million available.

Counties or cities can only pick one READI application to join.

READI efforts are supposed to “make positive developments in quality of place and quality of life, quality of opportunity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and talent attraction and development,” according to grant information materials. Those could be physical projects, like building housing or infrastructure, or programs, like business support and training.

Before the June 24 meeting with ROI and other Indiana Uplands partners, county commissioner Diana Biddle had been in conversation with Morgan and Johnson counties about a different partnership focused on the “live-work-play” concept. She said Brown County factored into their trails plan.

Nashville Town Council President Jane Gore and Strategic Direction Adviser Dax Norton had been talking with Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties about joining their READI application.

The Indiana Uplands region — of which Brown County has been a part since 2013 — contacted the Brown County Community Foundation to try to get Brown County on its READI application.

This was the region that pitched to a group of about 20 community and government leaders on June 24, highlighting the ways that the 11 counties in the Indiana Uplands are connected. A strategic plan for the area was created in 2014 with the input of all counties, including Brown.

At last week’s meeting, presenters from the Indiana Uplands group collected information on what residents saw as “wins” in Brown County from the last five years and the “wishes” they have for their community for the next five, as well as ideas for projects that would be best done regionally. Those would factor into the READI application which would be prepared on behalf of Brown County and any other counties in the 11-county Indiana Uplands region that decided to go in on it together.

Some people in the room weren’t convinced at first that partnering with Indiana Uplands was the way to go — or going for READI at all.

Commitments to regions had to be made by July 1; then, regions have until the end of August to sketch out which types of projects they might pursue with READI funding if they were to get it.

Questions were asked about who would be making the decision about which region Brown County and Nashville joined, if any, and how projects and spending priorities would be picked.

Tina Peterson, the CEO of ROI, told the room that the county commissioners were the body they were hearing from in other counties, and that people in each county on the READI application would be responsible for brainstorming around five possible projects. Some local and some regional projects would be included in the Indiana Uplands READI plan, she said.

“At the end of the day, they’re going to want to be able to say, ‘This moves the needle on population, on attraction, on business growth in our region over a period of time,’” Peterson said.

That does not mean that all of the projects would definitely get done; these are ideas that could be funded with READI money eventually.

The initial commitment to participate in a region, which has to be made by July 1, is not when those project ideas would be due. Regions have until the end of August to submit their plans.

“What if we say we don’t want to do this?” asked town council member Nancy Crocker.

Biddle added that she was concerned about where the matching money would come from.

A 1:1 match is required, up to $50 million. A match amount equal to the grant money must come from local public funding, and an amount three times the grant funding must come from private or philanthropic sources, Peterson said. Not every project must be matched in that way, she added, but overall, that’s how the region’s pool of project funding should look.

Brown County Community Foundation CEO Maddison Miller offered to help direct money from the foundation. That would help with the philanthropy side, Biddle said, but what about the “public funds” match? Peterson mentioned tax abatement as a possibility. The match requirements can be thought of regionally, Peterson said.

“It seems very fast to me, and I just don’t want another Stellar debacle here, and everybody in the room knows what I’m talking about,” Crocker said, as the presenters packed up and left.

“This needs to be really be thought about, and thought about whether this benefits us. And we don’t want to just jump in and throw some projects out there and then have people say, ‘Who decided this?’” Crocker said.

“In my opinion, I think not participating is not an option for us,” Miller said. The table of Brown County Schools representatives backed her up, saying, “Absolutely.”

“What have these other regions done for us? Nothing,” said Christy Wrightsman, director of career connected learning for Brown County Schools.

In contrast, through ROI, just in the past three years, Brown County Schools has earned a $500,000 Ready Schools grant, which it parlayed into another $5 million grant to help teachers find ways to reach and prepare students for their futures; a $234,900 grant to expand high-quality preschool education in the schools and train students to work in child care; and a $150,000 grant which led to the creation of the Eagle Manufacturing program at the high school. Eagle Manufacturing trains and gives students real-world experience in running an advanced manufacturing business, like the many that are hiring in the Indiana Uplands region.

Town and county officials still said they were worried about the quick turnaround time. The schools officials said that was not unusual for these kinds of opportunities.

“This just reeks of Stellar. It scares me to death,” Biddle said.

Miller — who was not living here when Brown County and Nashville applied for a Stellar Communities designation to access a funding pool in 2014 — pointed out that the projects proposed for Stellar were not the same as the “wish” items they’d just mentioned in their brainstorming that day: among them, increasing housing inventory, expanding childcare options and growing the school population, and building essential infrastructure to support those items, such as roads, water, sewer, broadband and jobs that pay a living wage.

“The plans itself are not related; it was how fast,” Biddle said.

Brown County High School Principal Matt Stark stressed that it was important to retain the relationship they’d built with ROI.

Peterson had said that even if Brown County decided not to apply with Indiana Uplands, it would still be part of the region, just not this grant attempt.

It is not clear what would be required of Brown County financially in the future or how Brown County would benefit from applying for READI with Indiana Uplands, as no grant application or project plan has been written yet.

At the June 24 meeting, the group of county, town and nonprofit leaders there was informally tapped as the local steering committee that will start brainstorming potential READI projects. No meeting dates for that group had been announced as of press time.
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