The new $500 million Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) is a potentially transformative investment in Indiana’s regional economies. Created last month by the General Assembly as part of the state’s next biennial budget, READI is funded with a portion of the $3+ billion in federal aid the state received through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.
In addition to massive federal aid, a surprisingly rosy state fiscal picture allowed the General Assembly dramatically answer the Governor’s State of the State call for a new regional initiative aimed at following-up on the success of the Regional Cities Initiative. And with the Indiana state fiscal year, and thus READI, set to kick-off on July 1, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) has been tasked with overseeing this new initiative.
To that end, IEDC recently published programmatic guidelines and FAQs that provide additional details on READI. These documents make clear that over the rapidly approaching summer months, self-identified regions will have to share their intent to seek funding before developing a regional strategic plan. Also made clear in these documents, is the state’s planned deference to regions when it comes to identifying the investments needed to promote economic growth.
In fact, IEDC provides a large list of potentially eligible investments that range from the development of workforce housing to the creation of physical spaces for hubs of industry driven public-private partnerships to programs and initiatives intended to boost economic activity. The broad latitude granted to regions requires leaders around the state to identify worthy investments from a wide range of possibilities. Fortunately, research recently completed for the Indiana GPS Project by the Brookings Institution provides some helpful guidance.
Because Indiana’s industries—and concerningly our advanced industries—are lagging in digital adoption, Brookings offers several recommendations aimed at bolstering competitiveness through accelerated digital adoption such as regionally-based digital skills development. This upskilling may be a good fit for READI because applicable federal guidance is generally permissive when it comes to training and skills development due to COVID-prompted unemployment. Services that support the low-income and minority communities who have disproportionately borne the brunt of the pandemic would also be eligible.
Along these same lines, Brookings also recommends advanced industry-focused training efforts aimed at promoting favorable job creation and worker transitions as well as job matching platforms such as those developed by Ascend Indiana, CICP’s talent and workforce development initiative, which also could be carried out at the regional level.
Also, given the concerning number of Hoosiers without access to a good job that pays a regionally-adjusted family-sustaining wage, Brookings recommends the creation of a “Choice Employer” program that could drive public attention and preferential access to worker training efforts in order to increase the state’s number of good jobs. While Brookings directs this recommendation to the state, there is no reason a region could not embark on its own Choice Employer program—in fact, it may be more readily achievable at the regional level.
Brookings additionally makes clear that the state needs to do more to encourage entrepreneurship. Here, too, IEDC suggests regions consider complementary activities like the creation of a small business revolving loan or investment fund and/or expansion of small business and innovation support services through Small Business Development Centers. Federal guidance clearly enables assistance to small businesses, including loans, grants, in-kind assistance, technical assistance or other services if it is in response to negative economic impacts from the pandemic. Federal guidance on this topic is worth a deeper dive, but there seems to be an avenue to support regional entrepreneurial ecosystems, though it is perhaps a narrower avenue than is ideal.
Similarly, Brookings recommends industry-focused interventions at the regional level to promote digital adoption, including raising awareness via networking activities that also facilitate access to technical consultants and subject matter experts. Brookings also recommends expansion of the state’s Manufacturing Readiness Grants, which IEDC has also suggested that regions consider emulating in their READI-backed plans. As with support to entrepreneurs, federal guidance may not be as permissive as one might hope, but there is nonetheless a likely route to support such efforts with READI.
Finally, Brookings also provides several recommendations pertaining to broadband access. While the most transformative of Brookings’ recommendations—modernization of Indiana’s Universal Service Fund—can only take place at the state level, some of ideas can be implemented at the regional level. Broadband-related investments are clearly permitted by federal guidance, so much so, in fact, that the state has also steered $250 million of its ARP dollars to its rural broadband initiatives. Because of this, early indications are that broadband-related investments can be part of a READI plan, but IEDC will likely encourage regions to make use of other state resources for such efforts.
Thanks to READI, over the next several months Indiana’s regional leaders will make investment plans that can—and hopefully will—produce returns for years to come. While there are many investments regions can make, the research from the Indiana GPS Project highlights both the needs and opportunities for statewide and regional leaders. While no one could know how much the world would change following the kick-off of the Indiana GPS Project in October of 2019, it is fortunate that this research has been followed with a unique opportunity to make the investments needed to grow prosperity statewide.