The final leg of Interstate 69 gives Johnson County the potential to attract high-paying jobs, diverse industry and talented workers.
In order to do that, the area must be prepared for major growth in traffic and population primed to alter the county’s future. How local governments approach that growth will determine the success.
That was the focus of a community conversation program hosted by Aspire Johnson County, a program of the Johnson County Development Corp. focused on economic development in the county.
More than 150 people gathered Thursday at Southland Community Church in the Center Grove area to learn about the timetable for construction of the last section of I-69, how that will affect State Road 37 in the northwest section of the county and how local governments could pay for improvements to roads, sewers and other infrastructure to attract new business.
The information presented is part of the start of the planning process as residents and leaders prepare for expansion throughout the county.
“One fundamental is that change is inevitable, but progress is optional,” said Chris Hamm, senior planner with HWC Engineering and moderator for the event. “Infrastructure and corridors lay the foundation and groundwork along which good growth begins.”
The I-69 discussion was the first of four conversations being sponsored by Aspire Johnson County, as a way for volunteers to interact with the public and gauge their interest in certain topics. The program is funded with a grant from Indiana Humanities, Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs and the Office of Community and Rural Affairs. Three more conversations will be conducted in the next two months and will look at attracting and retaining talent in the county, the quality of life locally, and the stories that Johnson County has to tell, said Dana Monson, director of business development for the Johnson County Development Corp.
By having these conversations about important issues, the group can learn which areas it needs to focus on and devote more energy in its research, Monson said.
The route of I-69 presents the biggest engine of change for Johnson County, Monson said.
Already, work is underway to connect the existing highway to Bloomington, and the interstate should be to Martinsville by 2016. The final section is in the planning stage now, so a final route is still being worked out. But it will either pass through Johnson County or nearby, and that means increased traffic in White River Township and interest from new businesses.
Sarah Rubin, project manager for the Indiana Department of Transportation, provided a glimpse into how the process will unfold. Any construction on the final section of highway is three years or more away from starting, she said. But already, the department is preparing.
The first round of public meetings was in February, and the department opened an office to handle any questions or complaints. More public meetings are scheduled throughout this year, environmental studies need to be done, and any potential route will come together through dozens of studies, Rubin said.
The hope is to have the Federal Highway Administration approve plans by the beginning of 2018. To do so requires the help of the Johnson County community, Rubin said.
“It’s really important to us that we keep the project on schedule. We want you to stay involved, whether that’s by coming to public meetings or coming to the section office,” she said. “Any input you can provide, we would welcome it.”
As the county prepares for the project, it also will have to look at the infrastructure it has and what needs to be upgraded, said Larry DeBoer, a Purdue University professor specializing in state and local public policy.
DeBoer explained how Johnson County could pay to improve infrastructure around State Road 37 and throughout the county. He laid out how the county, using taxes and bonds, is set up for major projects in the future.
“There are a lot of options to consider, but unless you get state or federal help to pay for it, it falls to the people living in the county,” DeBoer said.
Johnson County has 1,147 miles of roads — slightly higher than the state average of 1,065 miles of road but less than other counties around Indianapolis.
“What this tells us is that you’ve paved a whole lot of the county, but you have a whole lot of people who want to use those roads,” DeBoer said.
In order to create roads and corridors for increased traffic, Johnson County would likely have to borrow money, DeBoer said. The county has less than the average debt in counties across Indiana, which means more could be borrowed to improve roads and other infrastructure, he said.
Some work could be done without taking on new debt, said Greg Goodnight, mayor of Kokomo.
Kokomo has rebounded from an economic quagmire in 2008, when unemployment was at 22 percent and the four largest employers in the city went through bankruptcy. The city has attracted new businesses and private investment totaling more than $2 billion since 2009, including a new apartment complex on the site of a former blighted factory and a downtown baseball park. Forty-six miles of trails, bike lanes and bike routes have improved quality of life and attracted new residents, Goodnight said.
When Indiana University predicted population changes from 2010 to 2020, Kokomo and Howard County were anticipated to lose 1,200 residents over the course of a decade. It defied those predictions by gaining population.
Kokomo has been able to build up a surplus of more than $10 million and used some of that money to help build a new parking garage, two new fire stations, remodel city hall and create new trails.
“Details matter and design matters,” Goodnight said.
Aspire Johnson County Community Conversation
Information from Thursday’s community conversation on growth will be available online at aspirejohnsoncounty.org.
Answers to questions asked during Thursday’s program will be posted in the coming days. New questions or follow-ups can be asked through the Web site.
Upcoming Community Conversations
“Talent Retention and Attraction: Cradle to Career”
- When: 6:30 p.m. May 7
- Where: Greenwood Community High School auditorium, 615 W. Smith Valley Road
“Quality of Life: Showcase of Life, Fun in Johnson County”
- When: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. June 4
- Where: Johnson County National Guard Armory, 325 Minute Man Way, Franklin
“Johnson County: Our Stories”
- When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. June 23
- Where: Johnson County Museum of History, 135 N. Main St., Franklin