Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, talks about the READI program during a Tuesday event at Huber’s Orchard & Winery. Photo by Brooke McAfee | News and Tribune
Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, talks about the READI program during a Tuesday event at Huber’s Orchard & Winery. Photo by Brooke McAfee | News and Tribune
SOUTHERN INDIANA — Regional leaders came together this week to discuss a program that is bringing millions of dollars into the Southern Indiana area.

The Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) and Our Southern Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) presented a Quarter 1 READI Regional Meeting Tuesday at Huber’s Orchard & Winery in Borden.

The event included updates on the status of the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) program, including ways the first round of grant funding has supported projects in the Southern Indiana region. The state allocated a total of $500 million in READI funds, which is spread across 17 regions.

Local officials also expressed hopes for a second round of READI funding, which is under consideration in the state legislature. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s agenda for this session includes allocating $500 million in the state budget for the program.

Our Southern Indiana RDA received the maximum amount of $50 million from the READI grant, which uses federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Of that allocation, about $47 million is going directly to projects across Southern Indiana.

The projects supported through the first round of READI funding range from the development of Origin Park in Clark County to wastewater plant projects in Jeffersonville and Charlestown.

Vincent Ash, vice president of development for the IEDC, said the READI program involves 338 projects across the state, including about 60% that have been fully approved.

He said the program is leading to about $8.3 billion in total investment in Indiana, including private and philanthropic matches. The projects were divided into three main categories, including quality of opportunity, quality of life and quality of place.

The program gives the state a “competitive edge,” Ash said.

“There’s not really another state that we’ve identified that has this amount of money that’s going toward quality of place, quality of life programs working at a statewide [level],” he said. “So when we’re meeting companies on a day-to-day basis and they’re looking at Indiana, we highlight this program all the time to say, hey, these are the type of investments we’re making in quality of life, quality of opportunity and quality of place.”

Ash praised the Southern Indiana region’s collaborative approach to the READI program.

“I think it’s a good model for how a lot of regions should collaborate moving forward,” he said.

Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, played a key role in pushing for the formation of the local RDA. She reflected on how the area has progressed in recent years in terms of regional collaboration.

She said that the first time Southern Indiana considered a regional approach, “we weren’t ready for it.” She described how the region failed to form a regional development authority in 2015, disqualifying the area from the Regional Cities Initiatives.

“We watched with envy as the folks in the Evansville region, the South Bend Region [and] the Fort Wayne region spent our tax dollars on projects that were making their communities so much better,” Chesser said. “And not only were they getting the benefit of making their communities better, we were falling further behind as they were moving forward.”

In 2017, Our Southern Indiana was formed with Clark, Floyd, Washington, Jefferson and Scott counties. As the READI program was established, the RDA submitted $84 million worth of projects in 2021. That request was significantly more than the READI program allocated to individual regions.

“So we got $50 million, and I’m very, very happy about that,” Chesser said. “But I let the governor and the legislators know every chance I get that there’s still a $34 million ask out there.”

“We also know that if there’s a READI 2.0, we’re going to be prepared to move some of those projects from READI 1.0 to READI 2.0 so that we can move those forward.”

Cory Cochran, executive director of River Hills Economic Development District, said the Southern Indiana region has excelled at both applying and managing the READI funds. River Hills partnered with Our Southern Indiana for the administration of the funds.

Cochran notes that some of the original project requests in Our Southern Indiana’s READI plan were cut completely from the first round, while others were scaled back.

“I think some of those projects that were scaled down could see some more funding, especially because some of these projects were just in their first phase or second phase, and there’s still more to do with those projects,” he said. “And then the projects that were cut the first round, we could probably see a resurgence in some of them, especially if they might be a little further along than they were, and that might be the reason that they were cut in the first place.”

For example, several projects involving River Ridge Commerce Center were cut from Our Southern Indiana’s READI plans for the first round, including the development of the River Ridge Early Learning Center and a road project to connect Interstate 65 with River Ridge.

Ken Rush, vice chair of the Our Southern Indiana board, feels that the River Ridge Early Learning Center is an exciting project, and he hopes the project will return for funding consideration.

He is also happy to see progress on projects that the RDA has already approved for READI funding, including the South Monon Freedom Trail. Our Southern Indiana allocated more than $4 million for the 63-mile regional trail, which will start in New Albany and end in Mitchell.

“We’re excited about all the projects,” Rush said. “I think we’ve made an impact on Southern Indiana in so many positive ways, and it’s exciting. READI 2.0 is going to be even more exciting.”

Cochran said one of the challenges has been involving private developers for READI projects.

“We have not had great success with private developers,” Cochran said. “That has been one of our struggles, I think. Because when we did our call for projects, they submitted several workforce housing projects or whatever it may be. That was over a year and a half ago. They’ve moved on since then.”

The projects are also fluid, he said.

“That scope of work that the project leads submitted to us in July of 2021 changes,” he said. “Their funding mechanism changes, the project itself changes, their costs went up.”

Dana Huber, chair of the Our Southern Indiana board, said she is “confident that our state sees the value in the dollars that they’re putting forth for the program.”

“And no matter what they put forth, I think everyone in our state now knows how to work together, how to collaborate and how to work on these future projects,” she said. “I think many projects in our region were infrastructure, kind of getting things to a place, and I think if we do accomplish projects, we’re going to see more quality of place projects.”
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