Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch visited Shelby County Wednesday to participate in a networking lunch hosted by the Chamber of Commerce.
After enjoying Bellacino’s catering, Shelby County Development Corporation Executive Director Brian Asher lead a discussion with Crouch, who reviewed a variety of projects her offices are overseeing.
The first topic Asher asked about was the state’s broadband initiative.
“We have quite a rural county here in Shelby, and broadband has been a big topic locally,” Asher said. “Can you tell us about the work you have been doing to bring broadband to all corners of Indiana?”
Crouch said the broadband initiative began in 2018, following a Purdue study that showed 400,000 Hoosiers did not have internet and if they could connect those Hoosiers over the next 20 years, that would result in an additional $12 billion to the state’s economy.
“So in 2019, with that info in mind, Governor (Eric) Holcomb and I, along with the General Assembly, appropriated $100 million to expand broadband throughout Indiana,” she said. “Then COVID hit, and now all of a sudden being connected was no longer a luxury. It was essential because students were e-learning, workers were teleworking and health care was being delivered through telehealth.”
Eighteen bills were introduced this legislative session regarding broadband. SB 377 established the Indiana Connectivity Program, which empowers Hoosiers to submit their own internet information to allow Crouch and the Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), which she oversees, to determine which areas need served.
“What we will do is collect those addresses and every three months, go out to providers to provide that service,” she said. “We continue to invest in broadband.”
Those interested in submitting their information to this program can do so by visiting in.gov/ocra/broadband or call 833-639-8522.
The General Assembly appropriated an additional $250 million to expand broadband this year, which makes Indiana a leader in broadband connectivity investment, Crouch said.
Asher’s next question had to do with agriculture. Crouch oversees the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) as one of her lieutenant governor duties.
“What can you tell us about agriculture in Indiana, and why is it so important such an important sector in our state’s economy?” Asher asked.
Crouch said agriculture is big business in Indiana – agriculture contributes over $31 billion to the state’s economy.
“We are the 10th largest farming state,” she said. “Agriculture is a big part of who we are in Indiana, and so our efforts to be able to support agriculture, to come alongside ag economy... those efforts are all critically important.”
Asher added agriculture is Shelby County’s biggest sector, followed by automotive.
Asher also asked about tourism – “What is our tourism agency doing to help bring people back to Indiana who may have stopped traveling in the last 18 months, or people in other states who might be looking to move somewhere else, like Shelby County or Indiana?”
Crouch, who also oversees the state’s tourism department, said 76 cents of every tourism dollar spent stays in the community and for that reason, it’s important to promote tourism.
“I understand Dec. 31 is your bicentennial and that next year is the bicentennial for Shelbyville,” she said. “You’ve got some great activities around those two things, but also your trails are incredibly important. Trails are one of those quality of life investments that are really attractive to a community.”
She said in 2019 the state invested $70 million to expand trails throughout Indiana to connect people more and promote healthy living.
“During the pandemic, our tourism agency provided $10 million in grants to festivals, to cultural events, to those kind of activities that are extremely important to tourism and attract people here but had to shut down during COVID,” Crouch added.
Crouch also said that October is pork month, and the state tourism department is celebrating Pork-tober. The breaded pork tenderloin sandwich has been the state’s unofficial sandwich since 1908.
“There are 60 restaurants on our breaded pork tenderloin trail that you can visit and if you get to five of them, you get a free t-shirt,” she said.
Those interested can participate by visiting visitindiana.com/cuisine.
Asher asked how new people visiting the state would impact the housing stock.
“In Shelbyville and Shelby County, we’ve had some success lately, looking at over 1,000 homes [built] in the next five years,” Asher said.
Crouch said she and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA) is working on a housing and inventory study. The program would create an interactive map that would reveal where housing gaps are.
“We’re looking at the single, multi-rental properties, documenting where those are, and then the realtor’s demographic information is being overlaid on that,” she said. “That should be unveiled later this month. Then you will be able to go in to Shelby County ... and determine where the needs and the gaps are.”
Crouch added that she hopes IHCDA would be able to take this information to the General Assembly and look at what steps they could stake to ascend housing starts.
“I think this will be a project that will help us develop a strategic plan to address our housing needs here in Indiana,” she said.
Disabilities, mental health advocacy
Asher asked Crouch about her passion to serve those with disabilities. Crouch previously served on the Arc of Evansville board and now heads the Intellectual and Developmental Disability task force.
“Through that task force, we work to ensure they can build the lives they want to build and fulfill the dreams they dream,” she said. “This past session, the [General Assembly] put $80 million into increasing the wages of the direct service providers that care for this population so that we could reimburse them up to $15 an hour.”
The conversation moved from advocating for those with disabilities to advocating for mental health care.
“The human cost of this pandemic is huge and it’s exponentially growing for years to come,” she said. “As I’ve travelled the state, ... I talk to superintendents, school counselors, Girl Scout leaders, Boy Scout leaders, anyone who deals with young people, and they will tell you the amount of panic and anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, acting on suicide and self harm are off the charts.”
Through COVID, one in five Hoosiers suffer with mental health or addiction, she added.
“Those Hoosiers who inherited genes that predispose them to these conditions deserve an opportunity to be successful in life,” Crouch said. “It’s not the hand you’re dealt, it’s how you play it that’s important. But we have to get people some good cards to play.”
Those “good cards” include the General Assembly’s appropriation of $100 million toward mental health this past session.
Asher then asked Crouch’s thoughts on the new READI program. This program allows communities around the state to band together and seek up to $50 million in grants for their areas.
Shelbyville and Shelby County teamed up with Rushville, Rush County, Batesville, Greensburg, and Decatur County to create the region Accelerate Rural Indiana.
Specific regional projects and programs include more and better-quality housing alternatives; improved quality of life amenities such as trails, parks and family activities; targeted education and workforce development programming; enhanced water, sanitary sewer, road and broadband infrastructure for attracting regional investment; and regional marketing to attract talent and investment, according to a press release.
Crouch said she thought this program would be huge. The general assembly allocated $500 million for the program.
“That $500 million that’s going to be invested in communities throughout Indiana starting in the first quarter next year, that is going to attract conservatively $5 billion in private and local investment,” she said. “Our state is going to explode with projects.”
Crouch explained that that the READI grants were patterned after the Regional City Initiative of 2016
“Three regions of the state were each allocated $42 million to put in place transformational projects that would attract talent and keep young people in their communities,” she said.
These cities were South Bend, Fort Wayne and Evansville. Crouch said that for Evansville, the projects created from the state investment attracted over $900 million in private and local investment. She expects the READI grants to create similar impact.
Asher’s final question for Crouch was why she loved Shelby County.
Crouch said she loved the way the people of Shelby County work together.
“It’s that ability to help your neighbors and be able to collaborate and partner to be able to address the challenges and improve the quality of life here in Shelby County and in Shelbyville,” she said.