A "landmark," a "grand slam," "the best opportunity for our Region since steel."
The RDA was the brainchild of former Democratic state Rep. Chet Dobis, of Merrillville, and had the strong support of former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
"I'm signing a lot of important bills these days, but if I could only sign one, it would be this one," Daniels said at a signing ceremony at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.
Dobis had conceived of the RDA as a way to pool resources for regional projects that weren’t getting done. Opponents worried about sending money needed locally to an unelected authority.
The RDA's early years saw fits and starts, but a decade after its founding, supporters of the concept felt vindicated by the reauthorization of Northwest Indiana's RDA, and by the creation of the Regional Cities Initiative grant program, which required communities to establish regional development authorities if they wanted to receive its funding.
"The RDA has become a stabilizing influence so you can do more long-term planning," state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said recently.
Today, six more RDAs have joined Northwest Indiana's in trying to build more livable communities in their regions. Three of them are engaged in economic development activities after winning $42 million state grants in the Regional Cities Initiative competition: the South Bend-centered North Central region; Fort Wayne-centered Northeast; and Evansville-centered Southwest.
The idea that cities, towns and even counties lack the geographic scope and economic scale to plan and finance transformational projects prompted Dobis to propose creating the Northwest Indiana RDA in the 2005 legislative session.
Casino tax revenue going to Hammond, East Chicago, Gary and Lake County became the initial local funding source, and Porter County joined with a commitment of an Economic Development Income Tax. Each of those contributions remains $3.5 million annually. The state supplemented that with $10 million of Major Moves money annually for a decade.
That yearly total of $27.5 million combined with other sources to help fund extending the Gary/Chicago International Airport's main runway, more than $200 million in shoreline projects focused on recreation and a variety of transportation projects supporting Valparaiso's Chicago Dash bus service, the South Shore Line and others. The RDA also provided incentives for companies to locate in Northwest Indiana as part of its original mission.
The reauthorization of the Northwest Indiana RDA in 2015 refocused its mission on the South Shore's West Lake Corridor and Double Track NWI projects. The $10 million in Major Moves money was replaced by a commitment of a similar amount for West Lake's construction and operation, and the General Assembly is currently considering funding for Double Track.
Northwest Indiana RDA President and CEO Bill Hanna said the rail projects, and the transit-oriented development the RDA is working to bring, fulfill the RDA's goal of "economic development, talent acquisition and repopulation."
"It's a historic thing in the sense we've done a lot of projects that have had a regional impact, but each project was in a single municipality," Hanna said. "This TOD project, with Double Track and West Lake, you're really seeing an opportunity to lift everybody up at the same time."
As Soliday began work in this year’s General Assembly, he commented that "our goal is not to own a train; our goal is to rebuild the middle class.”
That notion — that an RDA’s mission is building population and wealth over a multijurisdictional area — is at the heart of the Regional Cities Initiative. The name itself reflects the idea that a city’s social and economic reach needs to exceed its municipal grasp.
Critics argued the Regional Cities Initiative’s competitive aspect unfairly and unnecessarily pitted different areas of the state against one another, because only three of seven RDAs came out winners and each received the $42 million grants.
But the idea had bipartisan support — the legislation establishing Regional Cities passed the House of Representatives 86-6 and the Senate 37-11 in 2015. And Gov. Eric Holcomb repeated his support for it in his State of the State address this year.
“I’ve talked with leaders in the three regions we’ve funded so far — including mayors (Pete) Buttigieg of South Bend, (Tom) Henry of Fort Wayne and (Lloyd) Winnecke of Evansville, and they’re all huge believers,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said in his Jan. 17 State of the State address.
“It’s bringing local officials together, regardless of political persuasion, to coordinate and align their planning efforts as they’ve never done before.”
The three-county North Central (South Bend) region’s Innovate Indiana plan includes 40 projects with an estimated total cost of $737 million.
The Northeast region (Fort Wayne) has 41 projects with a total investment of $472 million in its Road to One Million plan. The plan’s name refers to the goal of growing the 11-county region’s population to 1 million by 2031.
And the four-county Southwest (Evansville) region’s Great Southwest plan includes 19 projects with an estimated cost of $926 million.
The Regional Cities program allows up to 20 percent of a project's cost to be paid from program funds. A dollar-for-dollar match can come from local government, and the remainder must come from a private source.
"There are a lot of different approaches," said Regina Emberton, president and CEO of the Michiana Partnership, which administers the North Central Regional Development Authority. "Our strategic focus was on the urban core."
In Elkhart, the North Central Indiana Regional Development Authority allocated Regional Cities money for the ETHOS Science Center, an educational facility for kindergartners through 12th-graders; the Market District retail and multifamily residential project; the transformation of the old Hotel Elkhart into upscale apartments, a boutique hotel and commercial space; and construction of the Elkhart Health, Fitness, Aquatics and Community Center. The city of Elkhart is also upgrading its downtown river walk and trail system.
"And it's all within walking distance," Emberton said.
The North Central Indiana RDA has allocated all its Regional Cities money, with funds from local governments, community foundations, banks and private investors making up 80 percent or more of the projects' costs.
"They've had to be extremely creative, but I think it's working well," Emberton said of the financing arrangements.
Gov. Holcomb included $4 million in Regional Cities Initiative funding in his biennial state budget proposal this year. He intends that for planning activities in the four regions that did not receive $42 million grants. In addition to Northwest Indiana's, those are Indianapolis area’s Central Indiana RDA, the Muncie area’s East Central Indiana RDA, and the Terre Haute area’s Wabash River RDA.
Whether there will be another full round of Regional Cities grants isn't clear. Meanwhile, some Regional Development Authorities are exploring ways to continue their activities beyond Regional Cities program funding.
Officials in Allen County are considering a 0.05 percent income tax to help fund its Regional Cities program. Such a tax can be enacted by any county participating in the Regional Cities Initiative.
Emberton said North Central region officials, before entering the Regional Cities application process, asked themselves whether the effort would be worthwhile if they didn't win a grant.
The answer, she said, was "yes, we need to focus on a regional economic development strategy."
County and municipal officials there founded the RDA with the idea that planning needed to be done on a scale larger than in the past to attract the entrepreneurship, companies, talent, workforce and the diverse and inclusive environment they wanted.
"We should have a strategy done by late summer to guide our actions beyond the Regional Cities Initiative," she said.