Places along Wabash River should reflect the best Indiana has to offer.

The state should also invest in the cities that built its economic backbone, like Terre Haute, and the small towns and rural areas that surround those metros.

A $20-million grant for the local six-county Wabash Valley region — allocated by the state and funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act — represents a significant step toward supporting a better quality of life here for residents and future residents.

When paired with matching local funds, as well as private and philanthropic money, the grant can be enough to make a transformative idea a reality. The possibilities include an essential worker village to offer good housing to people in high-demand jobs; a entrepreneurial center where high school students, college students and adults can develop workforce and technical skills; improvements to museums and libraries; city pools and parks upgrades; programs at universities and colleges; downtown hotels in Terre Haute and Sullivan; and other projects.

The grant could've been larger, but wasn't. One likely reason was the declining population in Vigo, Clay, Parke, Sullivan, Vermillion and Knox counties.

The local coalition from those counties — the Wabash River Regional Development Authority — applied for the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant in hopes of landing one of the top-end $50-million grants. Sixteen other regions across Indiana were also competing for one of 10 grants from the $500-million pool of federal funds earmarked by the state for the quality-of-life investments.

Instead, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. on Tuesday allocated grants of varying amounts to all 17 regions, affecting all 92 counties.

Five regions received $50-million READI grants, four got $30 million, four got $20 million, three got $15 million and one got $5 million.

The READI grant review committee scored each region's plans "based on the established guidelines and against other relevant data, including historical population trends," according to an IEDC statement. The largest grants, generally, went to regions with denser populations and rosier projections for population growth.

Wabash Valley officials emphasized their gratefulness to state leaders for the $20-million grant. "We're thankful and we'll figure out how to allocate the $20 million," Mayor Duke Bennett said Wednesday.

The influence of population trends was a twist Bennett didn't expect, though.

"I had no idea that was even part of the formula," Bennett said. "I think we were a little bit caught off guard on that."

The READI grant allocations weren't the only situation where Terre Haute and Vigo County have felt the impact of the population slide. The Vigo County School Corp. has seen its enrollment drop from 16,420 in 2006 to under 14,000 today. As a result, the district closed two elementary schools last year and proposes closing another next year. Federal funding for a gamut of public programs and services are based on population.

The 2020 U.S. Census showed Terre Haute's population had dipped below 59,000 for just the second time since 1910. It's dropped 3.9% since 2010, and is now at 58,389. And, projections show Vigo County's population remaining static or declining by up to 10% by 2050, according to projections by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Among the other five counties that comprise the Wabash River RDA, the same fate is projected for Clay and Knox counties, while Sullivan, Parke and Vermillion are projected to shrink by 10% or more.

Greg Goode, president of the Wabash River's RDA, sees the $20-million READI grant as a tool to turn the decline into population growth.

"I think there's a real shot that we can reverse population declines and really get after it," Goode said Wednesday.

Effective projects could bring new residents, especially young families, and new businesses. The Wabash River RDA presented to the state a slate of 42 local projects aimed at strengthening workforce development, tourism, entrepreneurship and quality of life. The combination of the READI funds requested by the RDA from the state for the 42 projects totaled $73 million, with an overall investment (with local, private and philanthropic sources factored in) of $300 million.

Each has an ability to draw newcomers to west-central Indiana, Goode said, aiming "to inspire individuals to become more than visitors and to relocate in Indiana."

The RDA will assess the 42 prospective projects as it decides how to distribute the $20 million grant funds. Those with local matching grant funds more firmly in place could have an advantage, Goode said, but the RDA has made no decisions yet and awaits further guidance from the state IEDC. Projects that aren't funded through the $20-million READI grant aren't over, he emphasized.

"We are going to find a way to get the money for every one of those projects," Goode said.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb told the Indianapolis Business Journal that he intends to ask for more READI funding from the Indiana General Assembly in 2023, when the next two-year state budget is formulated.

So plans for each of west-central Indiana's efforts to improve its quality of life must continue and not wane, Goode said. And, the ultimate goal of growing the population remains atop the bulletin board.

"The next census will be conducted eight years from now, and that clock is ticking," Goode said. "We're going to have to hit that one all-important metric that is population growth."
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