HUNTINGBURG — Ever since Mayor Denny Spinner learned his city was designated a Stellar Communities finalist last month, it’s been full-steam ahead preparing the final application.

“There’s going to be a lot of meetings over the next six weeks,” Spinner said in his office Tuesday afternoon.

The mayor and his team — Rachel Steckler, the city’s director of communication and community development, Brad Ward from the Dubois County Community Foundation, Lisa Gehlhausen from Indiana 15 Regional Planning Commission and consultant Ed Curtin — are in the process of finalizing the application and finding corporate sponsors for each of the eight projects the city submitted in its original application.

So far, Spinner has commitments from many of Huntingburg’s corporate entities, including OFS Brands, Touch of Class, Old National Bank, German American Bancorp, Freedom Bank, Steinkamp Home Center and Uebelhor Developments.

“The next six weeks or so, we’ll be determining where the public and private dollars will be spent, finding a best fit for each business and matching them up with specific projects,” Spinner said, ensuring each company is investing in a project that makes sense for them.

Spinner said the Heritage Trail, a walking path that will loop around and through the city, has already proven popular with investors and the general community.

“The one project that we’ve received most comment on is the trail, because people see that as the connector that brings the community together. Going into the process, the wild card was the Heritage Trail. We didn’t know what the feedback would be, but we’ve received probably the most positive feedback on the trail,” Spinner said, adding that construction of the trail would hinge on the completion of the overpass project, which could begin as early as the fall of 2016. “A walking trail is something that if you put in place, it generates community in a lot of ways and provides healthy opportunities.”

The railroad overpass, to be located on Styline Drive west of U.S. 231 and north of State Road 64, will connect the northern and southern sectors of the city by freeing a path around trains that frequently roll through town.

The Heritage Trail will make use of the overpass, which will allow for an 8-foot-wide paved trail for walkers, joggers and cyclists to coexist. Spinner hopes to use the trail to connect the north end of town to popular spots on the south side such as the city park and Southridge High School.

Before those projects move forward, Huntingburg officials hope to impress Stellar Community representatives at an April 11 meeting in Indianapolis. All six finalist communities — Huntingburg, Decatur, Marion, Mount Vernon, Nashville and Wabash — will meet with personnel from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and the Indiana Department of Transportation.

“They’ll tell us what’s expected on a project-to-project basis,” Spinner said.

They will also schedule a site visit during which the selection committee will travel to Huntingburg to learn more about the city’s plans. The committee will inspect each site and determine how the proposed projects would impact the community. After all six site visits are complete, the committee will announce the two Stellar communities. Past winners have been announced mid-June.

“The way I look at it, we’ve got a 33 percent chance right now,” Spinner said, hopeful about his chances but pleased with the process thus far. “There are going to be just two communities that are selected as Stellar communities, but I truly feel that this designation as a finalist is something we can already see as a great feather in our cap.”

Although a Stellar designation would fast-track many of the projects and the honor is the ultimate goal, Spinner said the city plans to move forward with the proposed projects either way; the projects are already in the city’s comprehensive plan. Spinner said, should the city not receive the Stellar designation, those ideas may take five to seven years to implement instead of the three-year Stellar timeline. Proposed projects include the senior housing at the former St. Joseph’s Hospital, a maintenance and shelter building on the west side, murals to serve as a community gateway, improvements along Ninth and 14th streets to allow for better traffic flow, a downtown park, a waterline update along Fourth Street and affordable family housing at a location to be determined.

The estimated cost of these projects is $32.8 million. Last year, proposed project cost totals for Stellar winners Bedford and Richmond were $19.8 million and $19.9 million, respectively, with a mixture of public and private funding. The Stellar designation does not provide funds in certain amounts but allows the projects to be fast-tracked through the proper channels.

Spinner said he has received support from every community in the area, including from several officials in Pike and Spencer counties, who noted the projects in Huntingburg would likely affect all of Dubois County and southwest Indiana.

“We need to use this designation as a Stellar finalist to tell the Huntingburg story as well as we can tell it.”
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