Members of the Regional Development Authority board reviews paperwork at their April 11 meeting at the Honeywell Center in Wabash. Photo by Joseph Slacian
By Joseph Slacian
The Honeywell Foundation and Wabash River Trail each had their funding requests to the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority approved on Tuesday afternoon, April 11.
However, the RDA board made the river trail’s request contingent on it meeting several requirements, including having two public meetings in an attempt to iron out differences between its board and the public.
Before the RDA board dealt with the individual requests, it did have to inform all seven agencies seeking the funding that their requests would be reduced by 2 percent in order to come under the $42 million in funds allocated to it from the Indiana Economic Development Corp.
That means the Honeywell Foundation will receive $976,636.66 for the Historic Eagles Theatre renovation project.
The river trail will receive $941,031.28 if it meets the requirements the RDA board has set for it.
Those requirements include the group have at least two public meetings to consider input from various interest groups in the community, and that a final route is secured.
A timetable for that to happen was not put in place. That could happen next month when the RDA board meets.
"The conditions included in the Regional Development Authority Board’s approval of funding for the trail from Wabash to Lagro are fair and reasonable, especially given the board’s desire to ensure these funds are utilized quickly,” WRT attorney Mark Frantz told The Paper of Wabash County. “The WRT had already intended to accomplish these conditions voluntarily, and will now report its progress to the board. The WRT will continue to work with affected property owners and state, local, and other entities to move forward to secure the path the trail will take.
“The WRT has already been planning to hold a public meeting in the near future to provide the public with more information, however the time and place are still to be determined."
Before rendering its decision on the trail, the RDA board heard from both opponents and proponents of the plan.
Bob Sklar, representing the Wabash Wildlife and Sportsman Association, spoke on behalf of the opponents, and Richard Church spoke for the proponents. Sklar also presented the board petitions against the RDA’s funding of the trail.
“First of all, I’d like to point out that the request for this money, this taxpayers’ money, being made by the Wabash River Trail Association, is widely opposed,” Sklar said. “There are a lot of people here that are opposed to it. The general public is opposed to it.”
He then noted several “controversies that have been going on.”
“One thing is the public has not been part of the decision for the routing or the planning of the trail,” he continued. “There have been on public opportunities for comment. There is no published route that this trail is proposed to take. There has been a lot of speculation as to where it might go.”
He also noted the trail was subject of a stop work order from Wabash County because work took place on the trail without proper permitting from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The DNR has since approved the permit. The County Plan Commission has agreed to lift the stop work order; however, because of an 18-day appeal period, the ban will remain in place until the appeal period expires.
Sklar also noted that the proposed route has not been approved by Duke Energy, which is required because it infringes on the Duke easement.
“They claimed they had approval from Duke to use their right-of-way and began construction, but they had not received that approval,” he said. “According to the last information, Duke will not approve that plan it has submitted.”
He said opponents believe that the money requested by WRT officials could be used for other projects “that are widely supported by the community.”
The trail, if it goes through, “would effectively shut down our club,” he said, noting it has hundreds of members and hosts numerous events that bring in people from around the area and from out of state.
Church noted to the committee that he was raised in Wabash but lived in North Carolina for 20 years, returning here three years ago.
“The absolute key to our move back to Wabash was the quality of life and raising our children here,” he said. “We have a tremendous community, as you may know, with this facility, the Honeywell Center, the YMCA …
“Our boys are regular users of the small trail that we have today. We just think this is an absolute great opportunity for Wabash County. It’s the recreational opportunities; it’s the quality of life that brought us back after 20 years. We really hope that you’ll think about the broader community that has a vested interest in seeing this trail go forward.”
Church said he understands there are concerns about the trail, but noted that it is a private organization spearheading and that it has no right to use eminent domain to obtain land from landowners unwilling to permit the trail to cross. The RDA would have had that right if the tax funds are given to the WRT. However, at its March meeting the panel passed a resolution saying it would not use eminent domain to help the WRT to obtain the land.
“We own 35 acres south of the river,” Church continued. “Unfortunately it’s not going to be on our side so we can donate land to participate. If someone doesn’t want to, they don’t have to see the trail go forward.”
RDA chair Bob Marshall said the projects the panel considers “are important for quality of life, bringing back professionals, bringing back our high school graduates that are in trades or other professions that may or may not involve college, to come and locate and buy houses and fill jobs that are open, to coach T-ball and baseball, handle the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, join clubs. If we don’t figure out a way to bring these young adults back, or keep them, then we as a region begin to shrink.
“You have to look at your individual counties, whether you’ve been able to grow population or if your population is shrinking. That’s what the Road to One Million is all about. It’s growing our population to one million, and not waiting until 2064 … so that they can keep businesses, they can keep employees, they can grow businesses here and not close up and move somewhere else where more employees are available.
“We also understand that these projects are community driven. They take the consensus, they take the planning, they take the thought process of all of you in the county. All projects are supported or opposed by good people. We all want things to be better.”
The RDA wants Wabash to be a thriving community and thriving county, Marshall continued. However, working out the issues between the two organizations is not up to the RDA; rather, it’s up to both sides to meet and iron out the differences.
“It might be a compromise,” Marshall said. “And if you know the definition of a compromise, it’s a decision that no one likes but you learn to live with it. You can have clubs, sporting events, exercise and amenities for young people to use and bring employees and workers here. I would encourage you to try to figure a way to do that.”
He then charged the board to determine a way that Wabash doesn’t lose the RDA funding.
That led to a discussion as to how much time the WRT should have to meet the requirements they were charged with. One board member suggested waiting six months; others thought it should be shorter.
Michael Galbraith, Road to One Million director, said he would meet with WRT President Amy Ford to discuss a timeline and report back to the board when it meets on May 9. The site of the meeting has yet to be determined.
After all was said and done, both Honeywell and WRT officials were pleased with the board’s decision.
Honeywell Foundation Executive Director Tod Minnich said the board’s decision was “a big day for us. We appreciate the money from the RDA and the Road to One Million goals to promote Northeast Indiana.”
He said he isn’t sure yet what impact the 2 percent funding reduction would have on the project.
“We’ll have to go back and take a look at it,” he said.
“Funding for the Eagles Theatre Renovation Project has been received through the Stellar Communities Designation, private donors, and now through Regional Cities,” Cathy Gatchel, Honeywell Foundation vice president of development and marketing, said. “These collective gifts are imperative to the project’s overall success. Further, these commitments demonstrate that many others are excited about the vision for a renovated Eagles.”
In the release, the trail committee said it “would like to thank everyone that has supported the trail so far, and specifically the Town Superintendent of Lagro, Scott Siders, and the Clerk-Treasurer, Kristie Bone, for their outspoken support and assistance during the initial phase of this project. The WRT would also like to thank the Lagro Town Board, Richard Monce, Jim Curless and Jeff Shelton, as well as the citizens of Lagro.”
The release went on to thank landowners, Wabash Mayor Scott Long and Keith Gillenwater, president and CEO of the Economic Development Group of Wabash County, for their support of the project.
While the two local projects, along with five others from around Northeast Indiana, received the OK from the RDA, they don’t automatically receive the funds.
Their requests must now go before the Indiana Economic Development Corp., Galbraith told The Paper.
“All of these projects will go forward to the IEDC in Indianapolis and they will review them individually,” he said. “Some of them come back with conditions, so they’ll be conditional approval with such things as, for example, historic tax credits and things like that.
“We work with them that the project that they outlined to us in their proposal is completed to the way that the way the propose that to us before any money is dispersed."