The Stellar Communities program in Indiana awards grants to small towns that can envision a healthy future and have solid plans for getting there.The torch in Indiana’s state flag sparkles with stars representing the far-reaching effects of liberty and enlightenment. And now the state has Stellar Communities, four of them in fact.
In a time of so much anti-government rhetoric, a forward thinking state government wants to help Indiana’s smaller cities develop and implement their comprehensive plans. The program builds state agency cooperation to provide targeted funding and technical assistance, while giving local communities as much flexibility as possible to meet their priorities. The program attracts communities wanting to do better. Sounds like a Stellar Idea.
Indiana’s Office of Community and Regional Affairs (OCRA) manages the program. Administratively, OCRA is located in the office of Republican Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman. In an unusual policy move, the legislature made OCRA part of the lieutenant governor’s legal responsibilities.
Stellar Communities is more than a rural development program. It is part of statewide and regional economic development that builds community capacity through a competitive process. It also is about building state development capacity because it stimulates agency collaboration to serve community needs. Besides OCRA, participating agencies include the Housing and Community Development Authority, the Department of Transportation, and the State Revolving Fund.
According to David Terrell, OCRA’s executive director, the agency’s existence raises discussions of economic and community development to the policy level in state government. Rural development is not only about a strong agricultural economy, but also strong community economies woven into the state economy.
The Stellar Communities Program, which recently gave its second round of grants, could reshape Indiana’s development policy. The program focuses on planning, strategic state and local investments, and helping communities add value to themselves and their regions. It links pooled state resources with local needs outlined in the local comprehensive plan. Terrell notes that the process streamlines funding but does not cut corners. Across funding guidelines, however, the state tries to be flexible. This is one advantage of pooling funding sources. A longer-run goal is to make communities smart consumers of other planning services.
The Stellar Communities process involves seeking letters of interest from communities, a formal request for proposals from communities, and a workshop for invited communities. Formal proposals are filtered by agency staff, who then make site visits to study each community and meet with officials to assess their readiness and commitment. One community hosted both a parade and dinner for the visitors (good fun, but not efforts appropriate to the process).
The first three-year awards were given to North Vernon and Greencastle, towns considered ready in terms of their plans and project teams. The first competition drew entries from 42 Indiana communities and yielded 12 finalists. Second-round winners, announced in May, were Delphi, a city of about 3,000 in northwestern Indiana, and Princeton, a city of about 8,200 in the southern part of the state.
Stellar Communities assumes applicants already have some capacity for economic development. Once selected, the winning communities step to the front of the line for state assistance. Each receives $15-$20 million in blended funds from the different state agencies. A Strategic Community Investment Plan produced by each local government identifies capital projects to be funded during the grant.
The program is intended to increase quality of life. Terrell believes Stellar Communities demonstrates a new development paradigm that will ultimately create new jobs and enhance community sustainability statewide. The traditional economic development paradigm was based on places offering the least cost for doing business, including cheap land and labor. It was what he calls a “commodity approach.” People move where jobs are.
The new paradigm being tested in Indiana recognizes that firms still want reasonable business costs, but they tend to go where people are. In addition, people want to live in places with good quality of life. Terrell calls this a value proposition approach that makes communities desirable places to live and work. In this view, community is a place or product to be developed.
According to the Stellar Communities website, North Vernon and Greencastle chose a variety of projects to include in their proposals. Terrell says the merits of the applications were not only their plans but the ways projects were linked together for what Terrell calls transformative impacts in an immediate area.
North Vernon, in southeastern Indiana, is focusing on redeveloping the former Arvin industrial site, a 3.5-acre brownfield adjacent to downtown, to clear the way for private investment. In addition, funds will be used to restore the Carnegie library building. The city, with a population of about 6,200, is at the junction of two railroad lines. Conversion of the downtown’s historic train depot into a social center for community events is part of the project.
Other North Vernon redevelopment includes new sidewalks, curbs, landscaping, lighting, signage, and wayfinding for visitors, as well as creation of a pedestrian-friendly Short Street Plaza. This entails closing a street near the railroad station. Main Street development includes enhancing mixed use for both commercial and residential sites. The nearby Irish Hill area will include “historic uptown” streetscape improvements and construction of 17 low- to moderate-income residences.
Greencastle, in west central Indiana, is home to DePauw University. The city, with a population of about 10,300, is revitalizing its courthouse square and central business district to improve streetscapes and parking, while providing wayfinding for visitors. This project also involves preserving the historical integrity of buildings by improving facades and resolving environmental concerns in the commercial district. In addition, there will be a pedestrian-friendly residential neighborhood with second-story housing in the commercial district and new construction in the South Court neighborhood. The plan also includes a new community health center, a new trail to link the community and a recreational area, a partnership of DePauw’s music school with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and a technology hub/Wi-Fi bubble in the commercial district.
Terrell’s philosophy is that if the state is going to engage in grant programs, such programs need to be guided by – and guiding — desired behaviors. In Stellar Communities, community planning is one of those behaviors. The true benefit for communities is the strategic investment plan, Terrell said.
The Stellar Communities process might have a broader outcome for Indiana’s smaller rural communities. Winning the prize from the state is great, but the process itself is important. It gives participating communities a chance to plan, assess what is important, dream, and reach for the stars.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.