by Ashley Flynn
Wabash County was recently named one of six finalists in the Stellar Communities Pilot Program, which is a collaboration between the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA), and the Indiana Department of Transportation) (IDOT), to give rural communities funding for comprehensive community development projects.
Twenty-four communities submitted Letters of Interest outlining a 3-5 year comprehensive plan. A steering committee of 15 people helped identify needs of Wabash County.
“We’ve focused on downtown,” Bill Konyha, President and CEO of the Economic Development Group of Wabash County, told The Paper of Wabash in an interview. “In essence, we’ve focused on Wabash Street, Canal Street, Market Street and Miami Street in an effort to make a high visibility, high impact change in the community to continue our drive to make Wabash a destination, and the tactics are arts, entertainment and education,” he said.
Konyha has held his position at EDGWC for six years and has spent three of them working toward this grant.
“It would be a game changer for us. We want to be a destination for arts, entertainment and tourism. We will end up there, but this grant would make us end up there maybe five years sooner,” Konyha said.
Projects included in the Letter of Interest were a new Ivy Tech campus, restoration to the Eagles Theatre, Charley Creek Inn Expansion, a Splash pad added to the existing skate park, Paradise Spring Outdoor Amphitheater, Public Arts Program, complete and extend the city trail system, fašade improvement program, exterior work to the Wabash County Historical Museum, Market Street housing rehabilitation, Rock City Lofts and create a Community Services Center.
The Letter of Interest states that many of these projects are already underway, which the Stellar Communities program will like.
Bill Konyha, Mayor Vanlandingham, and other members of the community attended a Stellar Communities workshop in Indianapolis last week where they met with representatives from OCRA, IHCDA and IDOT.
“We talked about our proposal, Letter of Interest, and what their expectations were. We learned how important it is to them for us to include projects that can happen this year. They want that, and we have three or four projects that we can make happen this year. They really want us to demonstrate regional impact, and a couple of our projects do,” Konyha said.
“We enjoy as a community the great relationships between funding agencies. Specifically since I’ve been here, every time they’ve given us a grant to economic development, to Marketplace, to the city, we have done exactly what we said we were going to do exactly the way we’ve said we were going to do it. They trust us. On top of that, this community has down an uncanny ability to fund projects like the YMCA, Charley Creek Inn, and the museum. These things have been done without any government money in them.
It is important for the funds that come from this grant can leverage private investment,” Konyha said.
Resource availability and leveraging of community assets and partnerships was a criterion on which the Letters of Interest were evaluated. In the six years Konyha has been position, Wabash County has leveraged 278 million dollars in private investment throughout the county.
“They really like that,” he said. “We have a history of stable leadership; they like that.”
The steering committee’s next step is to prioritize projects.
The Ivy Tech Campus is among the top of the list because of its regional impact, high visibility, and it fits all the parameters necessary. A main goal of Wabash is to attract young professionals.
“We’re trying to impact economic and cultural aspects,” Konyha said. “Millennials are so important for the workforce. Workforce development is economic development, and that means education and training.”
“The reason we need to attract millennials is we need to attract 21st century jobs. We need young people who are smart and can look at things differently. We have a lot of young people involved in the leadership of our organizations.”
“Wabash County, in our 10 county region, has the highest graduation rate. Wabash City Schools is number one in the region for getting tax dollars into the classroom. We are the poster child of how to do it right, and I really believe that. The advantage that Wabash City Schools have, is that our superintendent is 36 years old,” Konyha said.
“If we can prioritize correctly and we can present projects now at this point that meet their goals and targets, then I like our chances. I think this community has done everything it needs to do to meet these projects,” he said.
“Whether or not we get the grant, it’s been a great process because it’s brought people together even more and operating even better than we already were,” Konyha said. “We were already operating like a Stellar Community, but we now have identified lots of different areas and potentials for us in the future.”
Even if Wabash County is not granted the Stellar Communities grant, which will go to two rural communities, the committee will still move forward with the projects.
“The purpose of the Stellar Program is to make communities behave in a stellar way. Well, we are. We have behaved like this for five years. We have collaborated and worked together and it goes back to the mayor at the beginning of his terms reaching out to the county commissioner and to North Manchester. It’s the spirit of cooperation.
Even if we don’t get this grant, we’ve identified these projects and the direction we want to move, and it’s the direction we were moving in anyway. What stellar does, is it helps us move faster,” said Konyha.
Next, the steering committee will meet regularly to prioritize and discuss plans. They have until April 28 to get their final proposal in, and then site visitations will be conducted in May. Winners will be announced in June.