The Knox County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday joined with elected officials, community leaders, and business professionals in hosting the next installment of its ongoing State of Series, this time hearing from those in local government.

Vincennes Mayor Joe Yochum, Bicknell Mayor Thomas Estabrook and Knox County Commission President Kellie Streeter made up the panel for the State of Government luncheon held at Vincennes University’s Isaac K. Becker Student Union.

While all three touted multiple successes experienced over the last year, the highlight — and the thing they all had in common — was each other.

“State of government, in my opinion, is better than it has ever been before,” said Streeter, in kicking off the discussion. “And that is all because of the collaboration we have across multiple sectors.

“The face of our county, of our cities, is changing and getting better, and that's because we are working together, every day, in some way.”

Estabrook agreed, pointing to his own partnership with the Knox County Sheriff’s Department to provide public safety in Bicknell, a deal now its fifth year.

“Nobody is trying to get one up on someone else,” he said. “We work together, cooperate.

“I’ve heard stories from years ago when nobody talked to one another. We don’t have that problem now,” he said, “and that is why there have been lots of things accomplished in the last year.”

Perhaps the biggest, the three elected officials agreed, was their partnership with Good Samaritan, a deal struck in 2022 to provide countywide EMS service.

Yochum, too, pointed to the Pantheon: A Business and Innovation Theatre, a joint project between city and county elected officials and Knox County Indiana Economic Development that opened in December of 2020.

Just last year, Brian Southern, the founder of AgroRenew, announced the construction of a multi-million dollar bioplastics manufacturing facility to be built in the U.S. 41 Industrial Park, a project the direct result of collaboration at the shared workspace.

Officials hope to break ground on the plant, which will eventually employ nearly 300 people, sometime next month.

Such innovation and development, Yochum said, wouldn’t be possible without collaboration, both amongst local elected officials and across all facets of the community, from economic development to Vincennes University, too.

“City and county government are getting along better today than they ever have,” he said. “And we’re now seeing major returns on that investment.

“And I think we’ll keep seeing those benefits for years to come.”

Yochum went on to say that the City of Vincennes is in “great financial shape,” with 173 days of cash reserves on hand, inching ever closer to his goal of 180.

Too, thanks to mindfulness and frugality amongst his department heads and council members, the city doubled the amount left in its General Fund at the end of 2023 from the year before.

“And all of that is getting us to the point where we can do more — more paving, more parks improvements — because we’ll have the cash to do it," he said.

“But we didn’t get here overnight,” he added. “It took years of hard work to do it.”

Yochum also touted ongoing infrastructure projects, like a multi-phase reconstruction of Washington Avenue, and the upcoming repaving of a large portion of Hart Street.

The city’s participation in HELP (Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program), with funding incentives from the state, is working to increase access to daycare options for local families and only recently opened a teen center, all of it in partnership with local entities like Old Town Players, the YMCA and KCARC, among others.

New, designated bus routes in partnership with VanGo, too, are coming as part of HELP, he said.

“It will make stops at the hospital, medical center, Walmart, Jay-C, places people want to go or need to go,” Yochum told the group. “We’re really looking forward to that, and I hope everybody takes the opportunity to ride those buses because if we don’t show a need for it, it will probably go away.”

And lastly, Yochum spoke briefly about ongoing housing initiatives. Working with local developers, there are now about 60 new homes in the works, and a new developer is working with the city’s Redevelopment Commission on funding avenues for the construction of 240 apartment units along Biehraus Boulevard.

More, too, he said, are coming.

Streeter said continued partnership with the City of Vincennes is likely in the county’s future as they look to streamline 911 efforts and find a new place to house the county’s youngest inmates after the closure of the Southwest Regional Youth Village last year.

The county has invested millions into repaving roads, both with monies from the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant program and with its own gas tax revenue, too.

“I am so incredibly proud of our highway department and how we are using all methods and partners available to us to leverage every dollar and be as efficient as possible in repaving roads,” she said.

She also spoke of an upcoming overhaul of the electrical infrastructure at Ouabache Trails Park, a project designed by Vincennes’ own RQAW, the sponsor for Wednesday’s State of Series, and funded with the county’s ARPA funds.

Probably the biggest project on the horizon, she said, is in an ongoing workspace study. A committee of county elected officials are working alongside RQAW to make more efficient use of county-owned space.

With the former community corrections building on the downtown campus of the Knox County Courthouse now empty — after a recent $36 million expansion of the Knox County Jail included a new space for those 175 work release inmates — that square block affords much area to grow.

And a new building dedicated to the county’s public safety offices is also possible.

“That is going to be the largest capital project ahead of us,” she said, adding, too, that the overall project, which could also include a renovation of the courthouse annex, will likely be done in phases.

Estabrook continued to credit various partnerships for recent growth in Bicknell, specifically the county’s Redevelopment Commission, which has helped to fund the construction of a splash pad at Southside Park, as well as the repaving of Russell Drive in the city’s industrial park and, too, possibly the repaving of both South Main Street from downtown to the park and all of East Fourth Street.

The latter two projects, he said, will be contingent upon another successful CCMG application.

Funds from the state’s CCMG program have already resulted in more than $5 million in infrastructure repairs there.

Estabrook called that “unprecedented” in the city’s history.

And not only are the city’s roads in better shape than ever before, walkability has improved, too. If the city’s next CCMG application is successful, there could be new sidewalks from Indiana 67 all the way to Southside Park.

“All of that would be unobstructed,” he said, “and something we really do hope to see completed.”

Estabrook also pointed to the recent completion of the Heritage Circle in the city’s Northside Park — an area dedicated to the memory of the city’s veterans and athletes — as well as ongoing construction of a new street department, too.

Up next, he has sad, will hopefully be a new City Hall, too.

Estabrook has said that this, his third term in office, will be the “community development term.”

“We’ve addressed infrastructure, public safety and now we want home construction and new business, too,” he said.

The city has offered up empty lots to developers wanting to build homes and has plans to do even more. Elected officials also plan to secure deteriorating property along Main Street, demolish it and make way for new development.

“You show us what you want to do, and we’ll say, ‘Here is the ground. Let’s go,'" Estabrook told the group.

“Because a lot of these things won’t happen in Bicknell unless we do it first,” he went on. “And all of this really changes the way the community looks.

"People are moving to Bicknell, seeing the attractiveness of what we are doing.”

The State of Government luncheon was the second in the Chamber-hosted series so far this year.

Chamber president Jamie Neal said next up in the State of Series will be workforce issues in August and, lastly, healthcare in the fall.

Neal said since launching the series last year, they’ve received much positive feedback. And they remain committed to helping the community "grow and thrive."

“Our priority was to keep our members informed and engaged,” she said.

“This series provides comprehensive updates and insights from experts at the state and local level. In each session, we dive into current initiatives, challenges, and opportunities, ensuring Knox County is a great place to do business.”
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