Knox County — in conjunction with four nearby counties — has submitted its intent to compete for a portion of the $500 million in state appropriated READI grant funds.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, earlier this year, announced the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, which intends to accelerate the state’s economic growth by making regions across the state magnets for workforce talent.

The idea is for communities across the state to utilize READI grant dollars to make quality of life and place improvements, therefore attracting and retaining workforce talent across a broad range of professions.

For decades, many midwest towns and cities have suffered the economic ramifications of losing potential workforce talents to the lure of larger cities.

“Right now every industry, locally and across the state, is in need of talent — retail, manufacturers, food service, everything. So that’s the state’s primary motivation behind one of the largest grant programs the state has ever launched,” said Chris Pfaff, president of Knox County Development Corp.

To be eligible for funding, however, cities and counties cannot apply independently. Instead, the state is asking neighboring counties to work in partnership to create programs, projects and initiatives that will meet the specific needs of that particular self-identified region.

Knox County, this week, officially signed on to partner with Pike, Spencer, Perry and Harrison counties.

“We spent a lot of time looking at how our economy aligns with our neighbors, looking at a lot of different options. We didn’t want to leave anything off the table in terms of what is best for Knox County,” said Pfaff regarding the partnership choices.

Though cooperation between five counties can prove challenging, Pfaff says the move toward regionalism comes with benefits.

“The state, for very good reasons, is encouraging regional plans,” he said. “The dollar doesn’t stop at the county or city line. Our economy is very much tied to Evansville and to Gibson County, for example, because of the Toyota plant.”

Pfaff, too, says a look at commuting patterns — with many people working in, but not living in, Knox County — provides another example of how daily life crosses county lines.

“Knox County has a net gain on workforce migration, bringing in more workers than are going out,” he said, before raising the question of why so many in the local workforce choose not to live here.

One possibility, Pfaff said, is the local housing shortage, noting that housing could be one quality of life improvement tackled with READI grant funds.

Though it will be several weeks before the five counties formally draft their shared vision of projects and programs, Pfaff said beyond housing, a few other possibilities stand out. One, he says, is an absolute staple of contemporary life.

“We’re probably behind the curve in terms of broadband service,” Pfaff said, noting that access to reliable internet coverage throughout the county is a significant concern — one that hinders a 21st century workforce that relies heavily on wifi.

For now, Pfaff says the regional group will work with a consulting firm — Rundell Ernstberger & Associates of Indianapolis — to create the Regional Development Plan of projects and initiatives, which must be submitted to the state’s office of economic development by Aug. 31. State officials will announce the first round of funding in December, with each self-identified region eligible for up to $50 million in READI grant funds.

The Indiana Economic Development Commission does, however, expect regions to match any state dollars received. The $50 million, for example, would represent only 20% of the total investment expected in each region. Local governments would then be expected to match the amount, with the remaining 60% of project funding coming from private investment.

Though still in its early days, Pfaff says, with state officials encouraging communities to be broad and bold in their vision, there is much to look forward to.

“We want Knox County to be a destination where people want to work and live — instead of working in a vacuum to make that happen, the best thing we can do is work with our neighbors,” he said.
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