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4/9/2017 12:32:00 PM
Daunting task: Vincennes preparing application for Stellar Communities grant

Jenny McNeece, Vincennes Sun-Commercial

City officials are getting in line for one of the state's coveted Stellar Communities Program grants.

“Just moving forward with this is daunting,” said Mayor Joe Yochum of the city's pending application. “Even if you get it, it can be daunting.

“But we want to get this process moving,” he said. “Then we'll be there next year or the year after, if it's still available.

“And, in the meantime, we can look to other (successful) communities and see just how they did it,” the mayor said. “Maybe there are partnerships out there we aren't thinking about.”

The mayor announced during his State of the City address in February that he wanted to apply for a Stellar grant.

Ten state agencies — led by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and the Indiana Department of Transportation — came together to create the program years ago, all of them pooling their financial resources to bolster Indiana cities, often with an emphasis on downtown areas.

In previous years, such grants have funneled millions of dollars into Indiana communities — $18 million into Princeton and $19 million into Bedford — since the program was launched in 2010.

The amounts of Stellar grants aren't nearly that big anymore, according to Ellen Harper, a former OCRA employee and now executive director of INVin, a not-for-profit looking to bring new business to Main Street.

And, she says, what many Hoosiers don't realize is that the grant dollars are only a small percentage of the overall investment made in a community.

While there has been no specific amount of money named for this year's Stellar program, Harper said she would expect to see somewhere around $3 million to $3.5 million.

But the overall investment Stellar officials want to see is much, much more.

As an example, she said, should the city submit an application for, say, $10 million in improvement and quality-of-life projects — things like an extension of the Riverwalk, the now-on-hold Riverview Lofts affordable housing project or a redesign of the Gimbel Corner — Stellar would only contribute about a third of the overall cost.

The rest, the mayor said, would need to come from both public and private investment.

Obvious organizations the city could look to for financial cooperation would be Vincennes University and Good Samaritan Hospital, but big business, the mayor said, is also possible.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Indiana, Yochum said, contributed significantly to Princeton's Stellar program, which included a downtown housing development, the restoration of their historic downtown theater and several beautification efforts as well.

“The city is the applicant,” Harper said. “They have to show a large partnership of private and public funds to help see the projects through.”

Most communities, she said, take at least a year to put together their application and a development plan.

City officials only have until April 28 to submit the first step, which is a letter of interest.

State officials will then decide in late May which two communities they will seriously consider. And it's then real work begins for officials there.

But Vincennes is leaning heavily on a downtown strategic plan done last year, in part, to make the city eligible for a $500,000 state grant that would help nine Main Street property owners restore and make repairs their building facades.

That application was submitted Friday, and the city hopes to know in June whether or not it was successful.

The development plan, done last summer by Bloomington's Strategic Development Group, calls for things like the establishment of an Arts and Entertainment District and the transformation of the Gimbel Corner into a sprawling urban park with restrooms, a skating rink and an amphitheater.

It calls for a sprucing up of First Street, the city's closest to the riverbank, with more residential spaces, a hotel and, perhaps, even a conference center down the line. And the city parking lot on Vigo Street, the plan points out, could eventually be turned into a parking garage with retail spaces.

It's those kinds of projects, Harper said, that a Stellar grant will look favorably upon.

But it won't — nor can it — all be done in a year, she added.

Most successful communities spend as many as three years preparing for the Stellar grant application and, if successful, another five to 10 years implementing its projects.

There are, however, drawbacks.

Not only would city officials have to come up with millions in public and private investment dollars, being named a Stellar community would make it difficult — if not impossible for a period of years — to get any other state grants for infrastructure improvements.

That said, city officials are still pressing forward, believing it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

And with a new development plan already in place, they see no reason not to.

“We've got a unique situation here,” Harper said. “So we want to take all of those unique pieces we already have in place, bring all of our assets together, show that cooperation, and we'll just see what happens.”

Related Stories:
• Madison to seek Stellar Communities designation
• Vincennes mayor says city's youth council taking shape and has 16 applicants
• Stellar officials strike Harrison County hotel/convention center from plans
• Downtown makeover coming for Bedford as part of Stellar Communities project

Copyright 2017 Vincennes Sun Commercial

Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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