Kosciusko County Councilwoman Kathleen Groninger (L) and Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts Executive Director Lakesha Green (R) discuss the Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program (HELP) pathways Tuesday during the community engagement session before the community forum celebration. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Kosciusko County Councilwoman Kathleen Groninger (L) and Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts Executive Director Lakesha Green (R) discuss the Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program (HELP) pathways Tuesday during the community engagement session before the community forum celebration. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
WINONA LAKE - Like a locomotive picking up steam to get to its destination, the Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program (HELP) in Kosciusko County is moving faster to its eventual objective.

Community and business leaders gathered Tuesday evening at Westminster Hall on the campus of Grace College in Winona Lake for a community engagement session and forum celebration to share project ideas for Kosciusko County and to learn more about HELP.

Kosciusko County was one of only three communities chosen by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) to participate in the first cohort of HELP. The other two are Auburn and Jay County.

County Commissioner Cary Groninger said James Turnwald, from the Michiana Area Council of Governments, brought the HELP grant to the county’s attention last year.

“This was something he thought would be really good for the county to take a look at because we were in the middle of our FORWARD Kosciusko planning process, and (he) really thought that we could benefit because we were really seeing a lot of need in our communities that really wanted some help with planning and just how they could better themselves and be able to plan for the future,” Groninger said, before turning the community forum celebration over to OCRA Executive Director Denny Spinner.

OCRA works with state and local government with national partners to provide resources and technical assistance to help economic development happen in rural communities, Spinner said.

The Stellar program was launched in 2011 in an effort to help rural Indiana communities recover from the economic downturn at that time. Spinner said Stellar allowed local units of government “to really dream big. To dream about what could we do to really turn things around.”

He said Stellar transformed communities around the state and provided a boost to rural Indiana.

“It was the right thing at the right time,” Spinner said, adding that it transformed his community of Huntingburg, of which he was the mayor at the time.

“So now we’re at another time of transition. We’re in another time of challenge for rural Indiana and that’s recovering from the effects of a worldwide pandemic,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who oversees OCRA, tasked the office to create a program that would meet today’s needs, he said. Stellar was suspended at the beginning of the COVID crisis because all of the available resources at that time had to go to that recovery.

“But now we’re at a different time because local leaders are faced with the task of properly and effectively utilizing the funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA),” Spinner said. “When we heard about ARPA coming out, the first thing we did was ask our local leaders what do you want OCRA to be, what’s our role in this? It came quickly that they needed guidance to help them through this process of determining how do we best take advantage of this one-time opportunity to have this wealth of funds coming our way and make decisions that would create legacy projects in our communities for years to come. And HELP was the opportunity to do that.”

HELP is a 52-week process that supports cities, towns and counties directly by helping to build capacity by creating a peer-network system, Spinner said.

“The idea is to develop a strategic investment plan and to give you access (to) funding that’s been set aside to implement that strategic investment plan,” he said.

The partners that “have come along with us to join us in this journey,” he said, include the Purdue Center for Regional Development, the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement, the Ball State Indiana Communities Institute and Ivy Tech Community Colleges.

“We’re working on four pathways, and these pathways are designed closely with Stellar but also with what we heard from the American Rescue Plan, what are the things that the federal government wanted to achieve in releasing those ARPA funds,” Spinner said.

The four pathways are advancing e-connectivity, quality of place, community wellness and strengthening local economies.

He concluded by saying that Kosciusko County is on the cutting edge of “what we’re doing here.”

After a group exercise, Kosciusko County Community Coordinator Amy Roe talked about the county’s journey to get to the HELP program. It started with the Kosciusko County Community Foundation’s Hometown Chats in 2019, followed by a housing strategy, a public safety communication study, a broadband study, a county Gallup Survey, the U.S. 30 Coalition and FORWARD Kosciusko.

When Groninger was approached by MACOG to move forward with HELP, he and others decided to go ahead with the HELP application, she said, with no idea whether they’d be chosen or not.

“They put together a creative application, in which not only are they the applicants, but they invited friends. So they went to each of the 14 communities in Kosciusko County and gave them the opportunity to be a part of this,” Roe said.

The “four brave souls” who decided to be a part of it were Pierceton, Milford, Etna Green and Mentone.

“All of us are on this 12-month journey, which, each of my community members can attest to, has been quite an adventure attempting to understand every part of the stages,” Roe said.

Weeks 1 to 12 focus on team building; weeks 13 to 25 (where the program currently is) focus on community engagement; weeks 26 to 39 focus on pathway assessment and project identification; and weeks 40 to 52 are development and implementation.

“So what are the next steps? We have to finish our community engagement activities. What we did today was a community engagement activity,” she said.

From 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday is an art-infused event at Remembrance Park in Etna Green; and then from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. June 17 is an art-infused event in the Milford Community Building parking lot.

Eventually, the suggested projects will be assessed by committee members and then taken to the respective town councils or county council. Those bodies will decide which, if any, of the project ideas will move forward. If ARPA dollars can’t be used for the projects, then a search will determine if some other grant or organization can provide the funds. The goal is to fund as many of the projects as possible.