“Not this year” was the mantra of folks opposed in 2014 to Nashville’s bid for a Stellar Communities designation.
Not this year, either, is the consensus among town leaders.
“Given the time restraints, I think we better prepare, right now, for next year,” Nashville Town Council President Charles “Buzz” King said last week.
“This year is, again, too close, and you saw what happened last time. Everybody got all up in arms because we weren’t prepared. So, next year, in my opinion. But that’s up to council.”
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Last year by this time, Nashville/Brown County’s Stellar committee had submitted its letter of intent to become one of the two 2014 Stellar Communities. The letter outlined a list of 11 projects that could benefit from those dollars and/or the designation.
On March 19, Nashville was named one of the six finalists.
For 2015, letters of intent are due March 16. Nashville will not be sending one.
“It’s a great opportunity, or was. And next year we’ll have another great opportunity,” King said.
The Stellar program sets aside federal funds from state agencies for which designated communities can apply through a grant-making process. Stellar communities don’t have to compete against every other community in the state for those funds, only other Stellar communities.
Town Manager/Economic Development Director Scott Rudd has been attending seminars about Stellar over the past couple of months.
Wanda Jones said she also attended a couple of information sessions.
Jones represented Concerned Citizens of Brown County, which mounted a campaign against the 2014 Stellar bid. Concerned Citizens called and wrote to Stellar state officials, filed multiple public access complaints about the local Stellar process and held signs that said “No Stellar — Not This Year” outside nearly every local site the state Stellar committee visited last summer.
One of the visiting Stellar officials asked the protesters at the site visit, “If Nashville is not so Stellar this year, what may change in a year that would make you more agreeable with Stellar?”
Spokeswoman Tricia Bock responded that the process needed “real public input” and a project list that represented the true needs of the community, benefited everyone and wouldn’t stretch taxpayers’ budgets.
Jones said last week that no meetings have occurred between Concerned Citizens and town leaders regarding a future Stellar bid. However, both sides have expressed interest in talking.
Jones has invited Rudd to attend meetings of Concerned Citizens, which have continued to take place fairly regularly. Organizers are trying to set a regular date and time of 6 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month at the library.
Rudd said he’d be interested in hearing what those folks and other town residents, business owners, landowners and stakeholders have to say about forming a three-year plan for the town’s priorities.
“Three-year plan discussion” has been on the agenda of every town board and commission for the past several weeks, and input also will be solicited by contacting town water customers. However, Rudd said forming that plan is not necessarily tied to Stellar.
Concerned Citizens leaders stressed last year that they weren’t opposed to the concept of Stellar but with how the plan for projects came about.
Jones said a recent survey of Concerned Citizens identified fiscal responsibility, government transparency and infrastructure needs as top concerns.
Creating a possible list of priority projects is also on their radar. But she said she was speaking as an individual, not a member of the group.
“Transparency is key. Whatever discussions are taking place regarding the future of Nashville in relation to Stellar, they should be out in the open and made public,” Jones said.
Town council members King and Sean Cassiday and Town Superintendent Roger Bush said they thought rumors and lack of education about what Stellar was sparked some of the resistance last year.
“Sixty percent of them thought we were talking about money,” King said. “No, it’s the opportunity to get money. They’re not going to hand us $10,000 or $20,000 or $60,000. It’s the opportunity to get that in grants.
“If I’d have known there was going to be that much opposition from so few people … I’d have not agreed to even try it,” King said.
“I don’t think so; I think it was a good experience,” Cassiday said.
“And our chances are better now because now they have a new category,” King said.
Starting this year, the state will award one Stellar designation to a community with more than 6,000 people and one to a community of less than 6,000. The state Stellar committee will choose three finalists from each division.
That would put Nashville, population 803, in competition with 455 other communities with limited local leverage — from River Forest in Madison County, population 22, to Gas City in Grant County, population 5,965.
The participating agencies also have changed. Stellar had been supported by the Indiana Department of Transportation, Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and the Office of Community and Rural Affairs.
Now, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indiana State Department of Health, Indiana Office of Small Business & Entrepreneurship and Serve Indiana — which supports volunteerism — also are collaborating.
Additional aid will come from the Indiana Finance Authority and the Indiana Office of Tourism Development.
Also, limits apply on the amount of funding that can come from each agency: $1.5 million from OCRA’s Community Development Block Grant program, $1.5 million from INDOT and $2.7 million from the IHCDA.
The IHCDA’s Emily Duncan said limits were specified “as a way to ensure transparency and that funding expectations are set at the beginning for communities wishing to apply for the Stellar Communities designation.”
Stellar applicants are challenged to plan a three-year, overall community revitalization strategy.
Last year, Nashville/Brown County’s Stellar outline projected $14,370,868 in Stellar funds needed to complete nine projects.
“I think that we’re better off that we didn’t get it last year,” Rudd said. “It gives us more time to prepare an application, starting now. Council has approved a … three-year planning process, so we’ll get all our ducks in a row, get on same page.”
He invited input into that planning process from all stakeholders.
“I just think it’s a matter of us thinking through what we want to do and talking about it, gathering all the input from any interested party and putting it down and thinking about it, and going after the funding to do it, to accomplish it,” Rudd said.
About the merits of a future Stellar bid, Jones thinks it would depend on what projects were being proposed.
“It sounds like it would be more viable for Nashville to apply now (considering the category system), but it would depend on the projects and how citizens feel about those projects,” she said.
“The whole program is evolving,” Bush said. “And who knows, by the time it gets done evolving, it might not evolve into something we want to do. It’s hard to sit here and make a decision now based off just the changes they made over the last year.”