RENSSELAER — A task force was begun with the Jasper County Economic Development Organization (JCEDO) at the helm after NIPSCO announced it plans to close the Schahfer Generating Plant in Wheatfield by 2023.
The task force members included business owners and county officials who gave their time to hear about the loss of accessed value in the county and to brain storm ideas on how the county can be proactive in replacing some of that lost property valuation.
JCEDO Executive Director Stephen Eastridge began the task force presentation by giving some background on the situation. He said the NIPSCO facility currently brings 17 percent of the county’s assessed value and 30 percent of the Kankakee Valley School Corporation’s annual budget.
The task force members met once a month, except March, with their first meeting an open forum at the Fase Center in DeMotte, where representatives from NIPSCO explained about the closure and why they were going to shut down their coal-burning facilities to buy cheaper renewable energy to produce electricity.
The plan for the task force was to come up with a plan to be presented at the joint meeting of the county council and commissioners in July. This meeting took place July 16 at the county courthouse in Rensselaer.
In summarizing the report, Eastridge said the task force, which had 12 members, decided on five issues for the county government to address before 2023. The first was to update the county’s comprehensive plan, to revise it to allow for the county to grow. The second is to review the permitting process.
Eastridge said if every new business or industry wants to come to the county, they first have to go before the BZA for a variance or special exception, which he said is not conducive to growth. He said they need to update the county’s UDO (unified development ordinance) to make it more “business friendly.” He suggested training for the BZA and plan commission members in how to make these decisions.
Number 3 is to prepare local infrastructure and ordinances for new business opportunities. The task force suggested adding TIF (tax increment finance) district at exits along I-65, including the exits in Remington, Rensselaer, Fair Oaks and DeMotte.
“Water and sewer are the biggest to get business there,” he said.
He added that there is more conversation to be done at the 215 exit, which has been annexed by Rensselaer.
A TIF district allows the base property value to stay the same. As the district grows and values go up, additional money it put aside for infrastructure improvements. A redevelopment commission oversees the districts. Eastridge said Remington is using a TIF district in the “right way.”
The fourth suggestion is to prioritize and target grants and other funding opportunities for the county. The task force suggested the county may want to hire someone to do the grant searching and writing for the county and the towns.
Finally, the task force recommends the county invest in and support “quality of life” projects, for example the mural painted in Rensslaer, building a youth sports complex and offering high quality early childhood education to attract people to live and/or work in the county.
Eastridge said St. Joseph’s College is a big part of the identity in the county.
“We need to work with their leadership to understand how we can help. Rensselaer is the county seat, its vibrancy spreads out to other communities.”
He said the county also needs to overhaul its tax abatement policy, which he and the county council have been working on, even before the NIPSCO announcement.
“We need to create certainty in the process to bring in business,” he said.
He said the task force believes getting an early start on creating TIF districts and updating the UDO is a good beginning.
Commissioner Kendell Culp then asked what was expected of the two boards sitting at the table. Eastridge suggested a formal response would be a good starting point. He said JCEDO is happy to assist with these changes.
Kankakee Township resident David Whitaker asked if the task force had talked to any other areas that may be experiencing the same problem. Eastridge said they have talked to the city of Jasper and Duke Energy.
When asked what NIPSCO plans to do with the property once the plant is shut down, Eastridge said the county is at the “mercy” of NIPSCO.
“We have an opportunity to take back our own narrative,” he said. “We can’t tell NIPSCO what to do on their property.”
Councilman Gerrit DeVries said there is no doubt the UDO needs to be done. Task force member Dirk Eggleston of T&M Limited, said, “You’ll have to look it over and see what needs to be changed.”
He said it took two to three years to update the last time it was done, and he said he doesn’t remember when it was done prior to that.
Council President Rein Bontreger said, “It’s a lot of information to digest. Steps need to be taken sooner rather than later.”
Eastridge said the staff at JCEDO will help to get it going.