Jay County’s Development Agenda: Insights from Commissioner Board Meeting

Jay County, Ind.— On December 11, Bill Walters, the Executive Director of the ECI Regional Planning District, attended a Jay County commissioner board meeting to inform board members about current and potential projects happening around the region that impact Jay County such as broadband expansion, the INDOT Safe Streets and Roads for All Grant Program, the USDA Business Enterprise Services and Training (BEST) Grant Program, the OCRA Owner Occupied Rehabilitation Program, the EDA resiliency and CEDS Grants, the Community Crossings Matching Grant Program, and more. 

The expansion of broadband in Jay County has been a significant discussion in the past few years since the introduction of the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program by the Biden Administration at the end of 2021. With over $42 billion in funding, the BEAD Program focuses on building broadband networks, offering subsidies to lower-income households for affordable internet access, and launching programs that equip users with devices and training essential for utilizing upgraded networks.

Since then, Travis Richards, the Executive Director of the Jay County Development Corporation, alongside Gary Thompson, former American Connection Corps Fellow serving as an AmeriCorps Service Member with the ECI Regional Planning District, have held public discussions about the program to inform residents on crucial topics aiming to shape a digitally inclusive future for the community. Currently, 36% of Jay County is underserved or unserved by Internet Service Providers. Bill Walters plans to organize a meeting with Jay County officials and the company Mainstream Fiber to work out how much fiber needs to be implemented in the county and how to budget this project. 

During the meeting, Bill Walters also briefed the Jay County commissioners about the recent addition to the team, Autumn Marshall, the AmeriCorps Broadband Fellow. Assigned to the ECI Regional Planning District until August 2024, she will play a crucial role in advancing regional broadband development. Her responsibilities span from helping residents enroll in affordable internet programs to providing broadband workshops. 

Another project that was discussed was the Safe Streets and Roads for All Grant Program. The ECI Regional Planning District was awarded $400,000, for Delaware, Grant, Blackford, and Jay Counties, with 47% of the funds being allocated towards disadvantaged communities, through the Safe Streets and Roads for All Grant Program. This program was instated through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in which $5 billion is being used from 2022-2026 to ensure regional, local, and Tribal road conditions are adjusted to protect drivers. From 2017-2021, these counties had a total of 166 traffic crash fatalities. Through this program, the county plans to reach its goal of achieving zero roadway deaths using a safe system approach. Part of the funding awarded to the ECI Regional Planning District will go toward developing an Action Plan which will include factoring in public input. 

Walters also provided the commissioners with an update regarding the successful attainment of the USDA Business Enterprise Services and Training (BEST) Grant Program by the ECI Regional Planning District. The district secured a $100,000 allocation in June 2023, marking their fifth successful application for this grant. The grant serves a vital purpose in delivering essential training and technical support encompassing project planning, business counseling, market research, feasibility studies, professional/technical reports, and enhancements to products/services for rural businesses across the region.

The project predominantly operates from the ECIRPD headquarters situated in Muncie, strategically utilizing the district’s affiliations with rural partner municipalities. This strategic collaboration enables the dissemination of training, workshops, and assorted events throughout the identified rural areas in the region, maximizing the grant’s outreach and impact.

Additionally, the meeting highlighted the upcoming Jay County BEST Workshops scheduled for the last three Wednesdays of January—January 17th, January 24th, and January 31st—from 5:30 PM to 7 PM. These workshops will be held at the John Jay Center For Learning in Jay County, Indiana, featuring esteemed guest speaker Ted Baker, the CEO/Executive Director of Innovation Connector—a distinguished business development service located in Delaware County. These workshops present invaluable opportunities for attendees to acquire knowledge, foster personal growth, and expand professional networks—all offered free of charge.

Another topic of discussion was the OCRA Owner Occupied Rehabilitation program. Jay County was able to secure $1M to aid a county-wide initiative to assist homeowners with limited to middle-range incomes in funding essential repairs for their residences. Jay County successfully gained eligibility for the OOR Program by actively participating in the Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program (HELP). As part of the requirement for a matching project, Jay County allocated one-third of its American Rescue Plan funds, received from the federal government, toward the acquisition of 68 acres in Portland intended for further housing development within the county. The application for the program was approved and now ECI Regional Planning District is awaiting further details from contractors before releasing the application to the public. 

Bill Walters provided the county commissioners with an overview of the grants sanctioned by the Economic Development Administration. The Resiliency Grant, which spanned from 2021 to 2025, was allocated to support economic development across various sectors from workforce enhancement to educational initiatives across all regions. Furthermore, the EDA Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Grant (CEDS) was granted in March 2023. As part of the regional planning district, ECIRPD is mandated to produce a CEDS Plan for the four-county region every five years, with annual updates to accommodate project advancements and the evolving regional needs.

Purdue and Ball State were enlisted by the subcommittee to collaborate on the CEDS, with an initial timeframe extended by six months due to the advent of READI 2.0. The Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) is a forward-looking program aimed at directing $500 million from state funds toward strategic investments. These investments are intended to position Indiana as an attractive hub for both talent and economic growth, fostering substantial development and expansion within the state.

Finally, Walters presented a proposal to the commissioners regarding the Community Crossings Matching Grant Program. Since its inception in 2016, this program has provided funding to cities, towns, and counties across Indiana, facilitating the enhancement of infrastructures such as roads and bridges. This initiative stands as a collaborative effort between the Indiana Department of Transportation and diverse Indiana communities, spanning both metropolitan and rural backgrounds, aimed at investing in infrastructure projects that stimulate economic development, create employment opportunities, and fortify local transportation systems.

Among the approved communities in Jay County for 2024 under this program are Dunkirk, Redkey, and Portland. However, certain communities within the county failed to meet the application deadline for the upcoming year, citing challenges arising from continual changes within local governance structures, impeding their awareness of the program’s deadlines. To be eligible for funding, a community must possess an asset management plan and hold an INDOT’s Technical Application Pathways (ITAP) business account.

Walters proposed extending assistance from the ECI Regional Planning District to the communities of Bryant, Pennville, and Salamonia to facilitate their access to this funding in 2025. Given that ECIRPD maintains consistent management amid local government transitions, it is better equipped to manage applications, plans, and ITAP requirements. Walters suggested that these communities collectively apply as a unified “town” entity to streamline the funding acquisition process. The Jay County commissioners considered this proposal in light of the communities’ future prospects and the potential utility of the funding for their development. 

In conclusion, there are many projects in the works across the entire East Central Indiana Region, many of which are particularly relevant to Jay County right now. To view the whole Jay County Commissioner meeting visit www.jaycounty.net