Redevelopment group rebooting for 2018

The Brown County Redevelopment Commission has some new members on its board, but its goals for this year and beyond sound familiar.

Improving the quality of life for residents. Bringing in jobs and growing the economy, especially through “makers” and small-scale manufacturing.

Redeveloping areas that have the right elements for growth. Removing blight from neighborhoods.

Increasing the availability of affordable housing. Attracting more families and more students for Brown County Schools. Finding land with essential services such as sewer and high-speed internet for new homes.

None of those goals can reasonably be completed and crossed off the list in the next year, said new RDC President Jim Kemp. But with support and communication from elected officials, he thinks the appointed volunteers of the RDC can make some headway.

The RDC met with some of the Brown County commissioners and council members in February. At least one member of the Brown County Area Plan Commission also was in the audience.

Increasing the availability of high-speed internet was a big topic of conversation, and the group agreed to take steps toward declaring Brown County an infrastructure development zone, in order to entice fiber-optic internet providers to expand service here.

Kemp also ran down a list of other focuses he thought the RDC should have, and new county council President Keith Baker responded, “Good job.”

Kemp had said at RDC meetings late last year and in January that he wasn’t sure if the RDC’s role in the county was agreed upon and understood by the other county boards, including the council and commissioners.

He also had questioned whether there would even be an RDC in 2018, as the council and commissioners didn’t name any people to the board until the end of January, after most other appointments were made.

The commissioners ultimately tapped Tina Bedey to continue serving and chose new applicants Danny Key and county commissioner Jerry Pittman to fill their other two slots over previous volunteer Tim Clark. Kemp and Jim Schultz were reappointed by the county council. Bedey then stepped down in February for personal reasons, leaving one slot yet unfilled.

“Maybe there was some miscommunication in the past, but we don’t want that to be a big thing this year,” Baker told the new group.

“We want to give you what you need to do your jobs.”

2018 focuses

Redevelopment commission members are appointed to one-year terms by the county commissioners and council.

The RDC’s 10 goals for 2018 center around the idea of leaving Brown County in a better place than they found it.

Many of the goals involve Jackson Township and the Helmsburg area. Kemp and other RDC members have been attending Helmsburg Community Development meetings for nearly a year, trying to lend a governmental hand to residents who want to improve their neighborhoods.

Cleaning up blight — the visible and physical decline of properties and neighborhoods — is a narrow focus of what “redevelopment” is about, he said.

Last year, the RDC and Helmsburg Community Development laid the groundwork for a program that would haul away the excess junk on people’s property if they didn’t have the means to do it themselves, Kemp said.

He’s like to see if more could be done countywide to address this problem, like enforcing existing laws that have to do with unsafe or nuisance properties. That’s one of the duties of redevelopment commissions, according to state law: studying areas that need redevelopment and combating the factors that make it that way, he said.

Brown County has great potential as a bedroom community for commuters, past studies have said.

Helmsburg and Jackson Township could be the next big opportunity, considering their access to a highway, high-speed internet and sewer. Kemp sees potential for attracting creative professionals to that area in art, graphic arts, software development or other industries that could pay well but have a low impact on the environment.

Land in that part of the county could be developed into small groups of homes, especially since it’s an easy drive to the new IU Health hospital going up at the State Road 46/45 intersection in Bloomington, he said.

“Can we steal some population from Johnson County, Monroe County, Bartholomew County? They’re hoarding it all up,” he said.

He’d like the RDC to conduct a “land management survey” to identify places in Jackson Township where more housing could go. Finding privately owned land that might one day be available for development is important, considering that half of the land or more in the county is owned by state or federal governments or nonprofits, he said.

“I don’t know if it would be possible for the county to come in and negotiate a deal with the landowner, buy the ground and find a developer to do a private-public deal,” he said.

The sewage plant in Helmsburg needs more customers to help it keep operating, and Helmsburg Elementary needs more students, Kemp said.

The top three reasons residents are either leaving Brown County or not coming here are affordable housing, lack of access to broadband and lack of childcare, said school board President Stephanie Kritzer, who’s a nonvoting member of the redevelopment commission. That data is based on studies the Regional Opportunities Initiative team has done with community leaders, teachers and parents.

She said the school board is keeping an eye on enrollment and space that could become available in all of the school buildings, including Helmsburg.

“Instead of throwing our hands up and walking away from a school, we might repurpose some of those rooms,” she said. They could house outreach programs for the community, or even child care, she said.

More stores that sell everyday items, like socks, also are needed in Brown County, said APC member Paul Navarro. With a high percentage of Brown County residents being of low income, they can’t afford to make multiple trips to Bloomington or Columbus for those kinds of items considering the price of gas.

“Amenities for daily living are important, too,” he said.

2017 successes

Last year, Schultz, Clark, Bedey, Baker and David Redding served on the redevelopment commission. Kemp replaced Baker when he resigned midway through the year.

A major thrust of their work last year was securing a series of grants to guide the county’s economic planning. Clark led that effort. The grant application is now on hold due to an ongoing debate about the ownership of the Van Buren volunteer fire station. The Office of Community and Rural Affairs put all county-sponsored grants on hold until the county commissioners can reach a resolution.

The RDC sponsored the Hometown Collaboration Initiative early in the year, which is a grant-funded, ongoing effort to get more people involved in shaping their community’s future. Brown County won one of those HCI fellowships, and a separate steering committee formed, made of people who aren’t redevelopment commission members, but are in contact with the RDC.

The HCI team will present the results of a community survey on how Brown County could be improved on March 7 at Brown County Intermediate School.

The RDC also worked with Brown County Schools to bring Cool Coding Week to all schools. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade were exposed to a potentially high-paying career field through lessons from the Eleven Fifty Academy. That week spawned a school club, Girls Who Code, which continues to meet.

Clark, who compiled the RDC accomplishments for 2017, also listed increased collaboration with the Area Plan Commission, Brown County Regional Sewer District Board, Master Gardeners, Peaceful Valley Heritage, the Nashville Redevelopment Commission, League of Women Voters and other community groups.

“Everything we have is interconnected, and what we don’t have is a county vision,” Clark said at the January meeting.

Kemp told the new group in February that he sees the RDC’s role as working on projects that are “important but not urgent,” while the elected officials work on matters that are “urgent and important.”

“If we can agree on what’s important and not urgent, we (the RDC) can do that work, and then come back to you (the elected officials) and say, ‘Here’s what’s going on; you talk among yourselves and give us the guidance on what you want us to do,’” he said.

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.