By Linda Lipp
The NewAllen Alliance had a jump on the competition when it applied for economic-development assistance and fast-track funding opportunities through the state’s Stellar Communities program.
“We’d like to believe that, anyway,” said Kent Castleman, the current president of the alliance of small east Allen County communities that was founded in 1991.
This year’s Stellar program, for the first time, emphasized regional collaboration between and among counties and communities, who were required to submit strategic-planning proposals they created as regions. The NewAllen Alliance, which includes the communities of New Haven, Grabill, Leo-Cedarville, Woodburn, Monroeville, Harlan and Hoagland, has been collaborating actively on just doing just that for about four years.
It was no surprise, then, that the NewAllen application was one of six regional proposals – and the only one in northeast Indiana – selected as Stellar Communities finalists by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs program.
The finalists were revealed April 19 and Castleman, Woodburn Mayor Joe Kelsey, Barb Smith of the Leo-Cedarville Foundation and consultant Kristi Sturtz traveled to Indianapolis April 23 to meet representatives of some of the state agencies they will be working with as they flesh out their plans.
“The big theme of the day was collaboration, if I had to pick a word,” Castleman said afterward. “It was, how are your communities coming together to collaborate? And how are you encouraging people to work together in a way that they might not have been working together before? They even said several times that even moreso than how you are leveraging the money, it’s more about the relationships and the process that’s important.”
The six finalist regions will receive planning grants and assistance from Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute with project alignment and continued planning efforts. Final designees will be chosen by the end of the year.
A lot of the discussion at the OCRA event was about bringing people and projects together, “and we’ve got a lot of that stuff already done,” Castleman said. But there is a lot more to do to make sure the projects in the plan are designed and explained in more detail, and to hone in on the funding strategies that would get them done.
Each community in the alliance has its own strategic plan, thanks to work done in 2015 and 2016. But there are core values, shared priorities and common elements of the plans too: amenities such as street and sidewalk improvements, parks and rejuvenated downtown areas, Sturtz said. The alliance will be working actively with each community to get engineers and architects under contract to develop those designs.
The planning will extend to include complementary projects beyond the Stellar items that would help leverage investment from the private sector, “because ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do,” she added. And the rural east Allen communities also are working collectively to develop a brand of their own.
“Fort Wayne does a lot of great things and is surging forward. We see what we are doing as complementary to those efforts and we’re providing great places to live that are in close proximity to where the jobs are. Not everyone wants to live in an urban area. We have a lot of diversity in our county and that’s part of what we want to celebrate,” Sturtz said.
As far as individual community priorities, in Leo-Cedarville, for example, that comes down first to the connectivity of parks and trails, Smith said. “We want to collaborate with Grabill and the county to connect six parks with trails. The trails are a big issue for us, not just for the connectivity but also the safety, so kids can get to the parks without being on Highway 1,” Smith said.
Restoring old downtown Leo is another priority, she added.
Woodburn has an industrial park that has seen a lot of activity and has a lot of potential because of its proximity to the U.S. 24 interstate, the so-called “Fort to Port” route, Kelsey said. Further developing that is its No. 1 project on the list.
The NewAllen Alliance has been working to develop relationships with elected officials in the county – hence the appointment of Sturtz as a consultant and liaison. It is also reaching out to the public, largely through its website.
“We’re still volunteer driven,” Castleman said. “We need to toot our own horn. We have great assets in our communities, but we don’t have staff in our communities who can arrange media stories all the time and do the marketing the bigger communities have. And that’s the hard part of all of this.”
The website is, in effect, also the strategic plan, something that interested residents can look at and hopefully be inspired by to get involved in one effort or another.
“So many times when these plans are created, they’re put in a three-ring binder and put on the shelf. The committee that did them is disbanded and they are no longer using it,” Castleman said. The website takes the place of that shelf and is updated regularly to keep everyone informed and interested.