Officials with Knox and a handful of other Southwestern Indiana counties on Monday made their pitch for a portion of $500 million set aside as part of the state’s new READI program.

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.

The competition, however, is steep, with 17 Indiana regions vying for a piece of the $500 million pie, and this week, each of them were given an hour to present their application to a committee of the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

“We’ve had countless hours of development on this,” said Chris Pfaff, CEO of Knox County Indiana Economic Development, a member of the 5-county steering committee. “Once we knew we had to give this presentation, we began meeting more than weekly.

“We decided, instead of rehashing everything they’ve already read in our application, to tell stories of the things we thought would have the biggest impact in our region.”

Representatives painted a picture of rural Southwestern Indiana, counties that have suffered with things like housing stock, workforce development and retaining population.

But they also painted a clear picture of potential.

Many of the losses felt in these communities, presenters said, can be reversed through dollars afforded by the READI initiative.

The overall theme of the presentation was just how well these five counties — ones not contiguous but which share many of the same rural struggles — have positioned themselves for development with investment, both public and private, already made.

The READI dollars, they urged, can be easily leveraged to create big change.

“We talked a lot about how best to tell our story,” Pfaff said. “And that became a recurring theme as we talked.

“We have a lot of opportunities here, and with a little bit of help, we feel like we could really really get these projects down the field.”

Steve Miller, chief financial officer at Pioneer Oil and a member of the local group, took to the podium on Knox County’s behalf, touting ongoing efforts being made to develop the county’s entrepreneurial ecosystem through the Pantheon, a co-working space and small business incubator developed with direct ties to Purdue University.

The Pantheon, 428 Main St., opened a year ago and already boasts more than 20 members, recently launched its first tech-related business and has developed relationships with major ag-tech partners across the state.

Local officials on Monday announced for the first time that they’ve, too, been working with PolyPlus, a battery manufacturer based in California, on the possibility of building a manufacturing facility right here in Knox County.

It would be the first such facility in this region, officials said, and funds awarded as part of READI would help to “stick the landing,” Miller told the committee.

And once PolyPlus is here, local officials are hopeful that others will follow, small businesses that license that particular battery technology. Miller envisions “a cluster of high tech businesses” here as a result with training programs available at nearby Vincennes University and Ivy Tech to provide the workforce necessary.

Pfaff said while PolyPlus’ interest in Southwestern Indiana wasn’t made public until today, local officials have been working with the battery tech innovator since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

PolyPlus has received federal grants to pursue the development of new battery technology and possible investment from the Department of Defense.

They like this Southwestern Indiana region, Pfaff said, and resources afforded by the Pantheon especially.

“This is an attractive place for them,” Pfaff said.

“They would like to build their initial manufacturing line here,” he said, adding that locals are hopeful it would result in other battery manufacturers to follow.

READI dollars would be used to bolster the incentive package currently being considered, specifically in figuring out how county officials can aid in the build out of a proper facility.

Other aspects of the 5-county application include ways to roll out improved broadband access as well as the construction of quality housing.

It includes aspects of transportation enhancement as well as improvements in tourism and quality of life, all of which would “act as a catalyst” for growing existing industry and attracting new business and more families to Southwestern Indiana.

These five counties, presenters said, represent “tremendous potential for the future” and projects that “bind Southwestern Indiana into a super economic region.”

Presenters also spoke of the Southwest Indiana Megasite, an 8,000-acre industrial park on reclamated coal ground near Petersburg.

Connecting to three state highways, I-69, three rail lines and abundant utilities, officials in Pike County said it’s ripe for development.

READI funds would go to provide support for infrastructure as well as the development of a unique Revolving Loan Fund that would help with the construction of shell buildings as well as a case study on old mine sites that would serve to offer peace of mind to those looking to invest.

Another aspect of the application was the creation of a team of rural advocates and childcare workers, among others, to create a new model to address what’s commonly called a “childcare dessert,” one of the plans most “bold, transformational goals.”

Southwestern Indiana can be a magnet for talent but without high-quality childcare, it’s nothing, presenters pointed out.

“What good is recruitment if there is no childcare?” asked Erin Emerson, Perry County. “It’s a critical piece of the workforce equation.”

Perry County, too, is looking to provide incentive packages of up to $25,000 to people willing to come there and work.

The five counties are also proposing to work together to build a national marketing campaign for tourism.

Melissa Arnold with the Spencer County Visitors Bureau called it a “super-regional joint tourism strategy to raise awareness and excitement about all of Southern Indiana,” including the development of an all-encompassing website to streamline information about sites and attractions all over Southwestern Indiana — and all of it with an eye on converting “visitors to residents.”

The five counties are a rather unlikely match, at least when looking at a map, but Pfaff said as they’ve come together over the past few months, it’s become clear they face many of the same challenges.

And now they will come together once again — to wait.

“I’m curious to see how the state responds,” Pfaff said. “There are 17 regions, and (the state) at least initially said each region could potentially receive up to $50 million in matching funds.

“So this is going to really force them to think about how to respond. They have some decisions to make. Will it be lesser for each region? Will only ten regions be funded? Or will they identify additional resources for the program?

“I guess we’ll see.”

Pfaff said it’s his understanding that the IEDC still plans to make a decision by year’s end.

Successful regions are expected 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.

Much of that was laid out in the respective applications.
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