Drive in the Park

WVPA supports USDA grant to expand northern Indiana business roadway, create development fund

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Rochester, Ind.-based McM Outdoors owner Mitch Melton scoured maps for a new home for his blooming landscaping business and found a perfect spot. The town’s sprouting new business park was near Lake Manitou – “Rochester’s bread and butter,” as he calls it, and close to most of his customers – and had just welcomed its first tenant.

Yet Blacketor Park needed an extended road and utilities to reach the last undeveloped section of the park, which also was the best land in the area prime for development. So, to energize their plans, the Blacketor Park owners teamed with their local electric cooperative and its power provider.

An aerial photo of Blacketor Park, with the Blacketor Drive extension in a dotted line. The Fulton County Economic Development Corp. and Fulton County REMC partnered on a project that received joint funding from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to extend the roadway. The project will open up 32 acres over 10 parcels that can be developed into business sites. The first parcel has already been sold.

Fulton County REMC and the Fulton County Economic Development Corp. (FEDCO), which owns Blacketor Park, in fall 2021 received a $190,000 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant (REDLG) program. The grant matches funds paid jointly by FEDCO ($110,000) and Fulton County REMC ($80,000) for an 1,100-foot extension of Blacketor Drive and utilities to the business park’s undeveloped 32 acres. The USDA funding also will enable Fulton County REMC to create a community development fund. Wabash Valley Power Alliance, which provides wholesale power to the electric distribution cooperative, funded grant writing support and services to pursue the USDA grant.

“We have received inquiries in the past, and we weren’t set up to be able to sell parcels of land because they weren’t subdivided,” FEDCO interim director Tiffany Futrell said. “It definitely will help to have the road extended, and the park is all subdivided now.”

FEDCO regularly receives requests from site selectors and business owners looking for a building larger than what is available. The new Blacketor Park sites allow businesses to customize new facilities as needed. McM Outdoors, which operates locally as Sroufe Landscape Nurseries, constructed a 6,000-square-foot building in the park, more than double the size of the company’s current 2,400-square-foot location.

“From an economic development standpoint, I love the project,” said Brian Anderson, director of economic development and public relations for Wabash Valley Power. “Getting that road and infrastructure in place unlocks land for development. It creates opportunities to bring in new business, grow existing businesses and bring in new tax revenue. That supports police and fire departments, along with schools. The project has a benefit multiplier.”

WVPA approached Prosperity Ag, a grant writing consultant that specializes in rural community development, to identify grants and low-interest loans offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could help local electric co-ops and the communities they serve.

The Blacketor Drive extension was a good fit for a grant with the matching funding available, said Christi Southerland, managing partner with Prosperity Ag who worked on the application. The USDA receives applications from communities across the country; those they score the highest receive funding.

“It’s a very underutilized program, especially in Indiana. There are some states that participate more. It’s definitely something that could be appealing to a lot more folks if they learn about it.”

– Christi Southerland, Prosperity Ag

“It’s a very underutilized program, especially in Indiana,” Southerland said of the REDLG program. “There are some states that participate more. It’s definitely something that could be appealing to a lot more folks if they learn about it.”

The USDA will award the $190,000 grant to Fulton County REMC, which will loan the funding interest-free to FEDCO to complete the project. FEDCO will then pay back Fulton County REMC; the $190,000 will then be a revolving development fund that Fulton County REMC can use for future projects.

“We want the funding to give us opportunities to be creative, but it will help us with load growth and economic development,” said Andrew Horstman, CEO of Fulton County REMC. “It would be focused on helping commercial or industrial businesses get set up with what they need to get going.”

Fulton County REMC logoFEDCO plans for the Blacketor Drive extension to be completed in spring 2022. Futrell already has started taking calls inquiring about the new sites. McM Outdoors, which has served Rochester for more than 50 years, will move into its Blacketor Park building once the road is extended and the site has water service.

“It means a lot when they get it shovel ready,” Melton said of Blacketor Park. “I don’t foresee a lot of people moving in there until it’s ready to go.”

Fulton County REMC’s collaboration with FEDCO on Blacketor Park and other community development projects reflects the Cooperative Principles that separate electric cooperatives from other utilities, Horstman said.

“I am hopeful that the Blacketor Drive project will lead to additional opportunities to benefit Rochester and the region,” Horstman added. “I am excited to see how we can strengthen our partnership with FEDCO and make Fulton County a known destination for businesses to experience success.”