Knox County is doubling down on its effort to secure at least part of the $500 million set aside as part of the state’s new READI program.

On Wednesday, Vincennes University alone joined with five other counties in presenting a second application on behalf of the Wabash River Regional Development Authority READI Plan, this one focused largely on West Central Indiana, specifically Vigo, Parke, Sullivan, Clay, Vermillion and Knox counties.

The application, which was presented in-person to a committee of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. in Indianapolis, includes a handful of projects, ones consisting of both programming and brick-and-mortar, on behalf of VU, the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy and Grouseland.

The largest of those requests is for an estimated $10 million visitor’s center to be constructed adjacent to the William Henry Harrison mansion at 3 W. Scott St., a project that has been on the minds of locals and university officials for years.

Constructed in a similar federal style, it would feature a museum and theater room as well as additional display areas, a meeting area for both community and educational events, an office for Grouseland administrators, a gift shop and public restrooms.

“When people come here, they want to see and do more,” said Lisa Ice-Jones, the mansion’s executive director, in a video shown to the IEDC committee.

Also included in the application is funding for a $5 million expansion to the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy, one that would include an art gallery to showcase Skelton’s original paintings; the museum currently has more than 200 in storage. It would also boast an event space that could also be used traveling or temporary exhibits as well as a small stage for presentations, workshops or comedy nights.

The expansion, too, would include a kitchen for catered events as well as more restrooms and additional storage for museum archives.

In an effort to convince the committee to find favor in the proposed expansion, the application included visitation statistics completed by the Indiana Destination Development Corp. that show a 24% increase in destination visitors from 2010 — prior to the museum’s opening — to 2018. In addition, the museum ranked in the top three places surveyed visitors listed as the reason they visited in both 2014 and 2018, ahead of all other tourism attractions with the exception of the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.

VU officials are requesting $1.25 million in READI dollars with the remainder coming through fundraising efforts, the application states.

A third brick-and-mortar project is a $1.1 million Center for Applied Robotics and Automation at VU, a training lab, according to the application, that would serve as the “primary academic home for the development of curriculum and credentials related to robots throughout the state.”

VU this spring received an $8 million grant from the Lilly Endowment meant to spur advanced automation and the development of collaborative robots — or cobots.

The grant helped VU to begin building a talent pipeline for Industry 4.0 — the combining of traditional manufacturing with the latest smart technology — in cobots and support the creation of the Center for Applied Robotics and Automation, or CARA.

Cobots are smaller industrial robots designed to safely interact with humans in a shared workspace, offering additional support for workers and giving them an extra set of hands. Their use, too, can increase safety, production, and efficiency.

“The establishment of CARA will provide the structure and framework needed for aligning the efforts of VU and its industrial and career and technical education partners, create a mechanism for evaluating efforts, and provide a resource for the continued development and refinement of the work,” the application states.

Too, establishing CARA at VU gives Indiana “the opportunity to be on the forefront of Industry 4.0 technology adoption and application.” In many ways, the application states, Indiana is “ground zero for addressing skill shortages in manufacturing and logistics.”

Indiana is the most manufacturing intensive state in the nation, with the industry employing one in every five Hoosiers and accounting for one third of the state’s economy, the application states.

So equipping existing workers and emerging students with technical and operational skills is essential for economic advancement in the job market.

VU president Dr. Chuck Johnson, in the application video, said CARA is meant to open up career paths for students directly to the university’s industry partners and “opening their eyes to the future.”

The application requests $367,000 for this project with the remainder coming from a combination of cash and in-kind matches from the university and program partners.

The application, too, includes two pieces of programming to be implemented at VU.

The first is a STEM summer camp for high school students.

Starting in the summer of 2022, the university’s Summer STEM Academy will host a series of STEM camps, with the overall goal being to increase student interest in STEM fields, exposing them to emerging technologies and increasing the pipeline of graduates for Indiana’s technology and STEM-related industries.

There, too, is VU’s Design and Innovation Studios, a collaboration with local elementary- and middle school-aged children to provide similar exposure to STEM careers.

These studios provide “access to authentic, hands-on STEM education by offering schools, educators, and students various opportunities to discover new ways to explore design thinking, problem-solving, technology, and creative skill sets,” the application states.

The Wabash River RDA application, as a whole, touts the existence of so many educational institutions in the six-county region, among them VU, Ivy Tech, Indiana State University, Rose Hulman and Saint Mary of the Woods.

Tony Hahn, VU’s vice-president of government relations, said much of the application is aimed at making West Central Indiana a place where those students want to build a life after graduation.

He called it a “buyer’s market for students,” so Indiana needs to work harder to keep them here.

“We want to create attractive locations, both for students and parents,” he told the committee during a question-and-answer session. “We want them to come here and say, ‘Yes, this is a place I want to go to school. I can see myself here.’

“We want it to be an attractive place to be.”

As such, the application includes a number of housing developments — and hotels — in the other five counties, specifically Terre Haute and Sullivan, as well as the expansion of existing museums and attractions, among them the Swope and Children’s Museum in Terre Haute, as well as outdoor entertainment venues, the restoration of city parks, the revitalization of municipal pools and gymnasiums and even water features.

The entire application represents nearly $300 million in projects, ones meant to “showcase a vision beyond retaining those who already live here, and, instead, creates a place where people seek out adventure, culture, education, and new opportunities.”

The Wabash River region’s president, Greg Goode, called West Central Indiana the state’s “front door to the west,” an area ripe with potential and one positioned well to leverage any dollars afforded to it by the READI program.

“It’s going to take investment in quality of life enhancements that will catch the attention of individuals to see there is momentum here,” he said of the Wabash River region. “We’re working together to make sure tomorrow is better than today and the day before.”

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The application indicates that VU has been working alongside these other counties since 2018 when the state launched its Regional Cities Initiative, hence their partnership on the READI application.

On Monday, other officials from Knox County joined a handful of other Southwestern Indiana counties to make their pitch for a portion of $500 million, one that included other projects and initiatives to bolster housing, expand broadband service and spur tourism, to name a few.

Knox partnered with Pike, Spencer, Perry and Harrison counties and in September submitted an application that, if fully realized, would mean $54 million in total improvements in Knox County alone.

But both applications are up against a total of 17 regions, each eligible for up to $50 million in funding.

There isn’t enough money to go around, so the IEDC will be making some tough decisions in the coming weeks.

They have indicated, however, that they hope to make the awards by year’s end.
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