Evansville mayor Lloyd Winnecke (center) smiles as the Strategic Review Committee votes to fund three Regional Cities projects.
Evansville mayor Lloyd Winnecke (center) smiles as the Strategic Review Committee votes to fund three Regional Cities projects.
Zach Osowski and Susan Orr, Evansville Courier & Press

It was a big announcement, for sure — Southwestern Indiana, along with the Fort Wayne and South Bend areas, are all set to receive $42 million in funding through Indiana’s new Regional Cities Initiative economic development program.

But even during the press conference, those involved were looking ahead at what’s to come.

“We are at the beginning of a process,” Gov. Mike Pence said Wednesday during the Indiana Economic Development Corp. board meeting at which the announcement was made.

At that meeting, the Indiana Regional Development Corp. voted to award $42 million in funding to each of three applicants in the state’s Regional Cities economic development program. Those recipients include Southwestern Indiana along with the Northeast (Fort Wayne) and North Central (South Bend) regions of the state.

Southwestern Indiana’s plan will use Regional Cities money as partial funding for a dozen different projects in Evansville as well as Warrick, Posey and Gibson counties.

“We have projects ready to go today,” said Greg Wathen, president and chief executive officer at the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana.

Those projects range from Downtown Evansville residential and research facilities to upgrades at Evansville Regional Airport to projects in Oakland City, New Harmony and Warrick County.

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke said all of Southwestern Indiana’s projects can be completed within the next five years.

“This is a game-changer. It is not just for Southwestern Indiana, but for the entire state,” Winnecke said.

But a few things have to happen before money becomes available.

Because the Regional Cities plan was originally intended to fund only two applicants, the IEDC will need to seek state legislative approval for the extra funding. Money will come from the state’s recent tax amnesty program, which brought in enough money to fully fund three regions’ proposals.

Regional Cities, approved by the Indiana Legislature earlier this year, was conceived as a way to support transformational projects around the state that will improve quality of place and spur population growth.

Pence told reporters he is “reasonably confident” that legislators will approve the additional funding, especially since the tax amnesty program brought in more money than expected.

If the additional funds are not approved, the committee will have to come back and either eliminate a region or split the $84 million three ways. The Strategic Review Committee did not offer a ranking of the top three regions, instead listing them alphabetically.

IEDC President Jim Schellinger said those options would be discussed if the legislature doesn’t approve the additional funding. But he echoed Pence’s confidence in seeing the additional funds win approval.

“I think once the General Assembly and lawmakers see the quality of these proposals, it’s my hope they will approve the recommendations,” Schellinger said.

Local lawmakers Ron Bacon and Vaneta Becker were in the audience for the IEDC meeting. They both said they would vote for a bill asking for the additional allocation.

“Absolutely I would vote for that,” Bacon said. “We were hoping we could fund two regions with the money from the program and we have enough for three.”

Pence said the state has $136.7 million cash on hand from state tax amnesty payments, and it expects another $21 million in future payments.

Also unknown are the exact details and rules for dispersal of the money.

“We don’t have those rules, the grant guidelines, yet,” said Beth McFadin Higgins, a Mount Vernon attorney who is president of the Southwestern Indiana Regional Development Authority.

“We’re in uncharted territory right now. This is brand-new,” added Jim Ryan, another member of the regional development authority.

Wathen said Pence plans to visit Evansville on Monday to discuss Regional Cities matters.

A lot of unknowns also surround another aspect of Regional Cities.

The IEDC voted Wednesday on a “Phase 2” of Regional Cities that would focus on the four applicants that did not receive funding. Those regions are Central Indiana (Indianapolis area); East Central (Muncie area); Northwest (Gary, Hammond and surroundings) and West Central (including Terre Haute and Vincennes).

IEDC board members said the Phase 2 concept is an acknowledgement that all seven applicants included some strong components in their plans.

Details about Phase 2 have yet to be determined, said John Thompson, an IEDC board member who also chaired the Regional Cities strategic review committee.

Thompson said those regions might get financial support for individual projects within their proposals, or to cover their Regional Cities planning costs.

That money could come from tax amnesty or some other as-yet-unnamed source, Thompson said.

“I don’t expect any full plans to be funded, but who knows?” Thompson said.

There’s also a chance no funding will be forthcoming, Thompson said, but he’s optimistic that the remaining four regions will get some money.

But the unknowns didn’t damper the Southwest region’s enthusiasm.

“This is a day I’ll never forget,” Winnecke said. “Today’s award tells me that Southwest Indiana is a strong region.”