Jay County is getting HELP.

Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch announced Tuesday that Jay County will be among the first three communities involved in the Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program (HELP) administered by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs.

The program was started this year in an effort to assist communities with planning how they will utilize federal coronavirus relief funds.

“This new program presents a unique opportunity for communities,” Crouch said in a press release. “Those chosen to participate in HELP will learn how to best spend their recovery funds in order to create a lasting positive impact and legacy in their area.”

A total of nine communities were chosen to be part of HELP, with Jay County, Kosciusko County and the City of Auburn to be in the first cohort for the year-long program and start the process in January.

“I think it’s great news,” said Jay County Commissioners president Chad Aker. “This could possibly turn our $4 million into $5 million and also we’ll be getting some help and some guidance on some of the projects, maybe better ways of doing the projects we want to do, more most-effective ways of getting those done. I think it will be better for everybody.”

“I think it’s exciting,” added Travis Richards, executive director of Jay County Development Corp. “I think we have a year’s worth of work ahead of us, but it’s all going to be good.”

Daviess County, Dubois County and the City of Vincennes will follow as the second cohort beginning in summer 2022, and Franklin County, Wayne County and the City of Connersville will start in 2023.

HELP builds off of the Office of Community and Rural Affairs’ previous Stellar Communities program — Dunkirk was a finalist in 2015 while Jay County was a finalist in 2019 — with priorities shifting to addressing the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 health emergency. (The Stellar program was put on hold in early 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic hit.)

“HELP builds upon the successes of the Stellar program, while also adapting to best respond to the current challenges Indiana communities are facing,” said OCRA executive director Denny Spinner in a press release. “Those chosen for this program have exhibited a great dedication to community engagement and development and we look forward to working with each of them during this process.”

While more details will become available over the next few weeks, the initial details show HELP being implemented in four stages over the course of a year. Those stages are as follows:

•Team building — Hiring a community coordinator, evaluating existing plans with help from the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement and forming committees
•Community collaboration — Receiving data training from non-profit CivicLab, developing a communication and engagement plan with OCRA and Indiana Arts Council and hosting a community forum
•Assessment and identification — Holding meetings about various pathways and prioritizing projects
•Development and implementation — Identifying project funding options including the federal American Rescue Plan Act, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and other sources, and developing a strategic investment plan

In addition to IU, the Indiana Arts Commission and CivicLab, Purdue Center for Regional Development, Ball State University Indiana Communities Institute, Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana Department of Transportation, Indiana Department of Health, Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and NEXT Studios will all be involved in the process.

“We are fortunate to have the expertise of these community institutions and state organizations for this program,” said OCRA director of strategic initiatives Andrea Kern in a press release. “With their guidance, we will be able to propel this program to new heights for our Hoosier communities.”

Jay County officials have discussed a variety of options for use of the nearly $4 million the county is receiving from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for coronavirus relief. Through HELP, the county could also receive up to an additional $1 million in funding from the state. (The county would still need to apply for those funds, but being a HELP community would essentially push that application to the front of the line, Richards said.)

Those ideas have included daycare, housing, cybersecurity, broadband, ventilation or repair projects at county buildings and support for local businesses. Daycare and housing were initially settled upon as the top two priorities, though the latter of those is currently limited to “affordable housing” or “housing the unhoused.” (A bill working its way through Congress could expand the possible uses for the federal funds.)

Early this month, The Portland Foundation executive director Doug Inman visited a joint session of Jay County Commissioners and Jay County Council to pitch a plan to turn the former Judge Haynes Elementary School building in Portland into a new child care facility. (The foundation has been leading an effort through implementation phase of Lilly Endowment’s Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow (GIFT) initiative to identify local challenges and potential solutions, with child care continuing to climb to the top of the list in committee meetings.) Jay School Board has since agreed to donate the Judge Haynes building for the effort.

Inman requested $975,000 from the county for renovating the building with The Portland Foundation offering to provide $500,000 for engineering costs, equipment and supplies. He plans to visit Portland City Council next month to make a funding request as well.

Jay County Commissioners and Jay County Council president Jeanne Houchins discussed a potential housing effort Monday morning. The idea calls for a feasibility study regarding 160 acres of county-owned land adjacent to Jay County Highway Department. (The land is bordered by county roads 100 East, 100 North and 200 North.)

Representatives from civil engineering firm Butler, Fairman and Seufert proposed a feasibility study for housing on the property. Commissioners had a lengthy discussion on the topic and ultimately took the possibility of the feasibility study under advisement.

Regardless of how the county chooses to spend its federal coronavirus relief funds, those decisions will now be made with guidance and assistance through the HELP program and its various partner agencies and organizations.

“What excites me the most is we have this once-in-a-lifetime amount of money available for use,” said Richards, “and now we are going to leverage the knowledge and planning skills of state agencies and state universities to help us make the best possible decisions for the long-term future of the county.”