Bloomington OKs $400K for promotion of Trades District development, tech center construction

Looking north from the top of the Trades District parking garage. Cutting across the foreground is 10th Street. The Mill, with its sawtooth roofline, is visible to the right about mid-way up the frame. (Jan. 28, 2023)

The now open space in downtown that’s roughly bounded by 10th and 11th streets, and Rogers and Madison streets, will get some renewed focus and attention for development.

The area is known as the Trades District, which is a 12-acre portion of a larger area comprising Bloomington’s certified technology park.

The real estate was purchased by Bloomington’s redevelopment commission more than a decade ago.

At its meeting last Monday, Bloomington’s redevelopment commission (RDC) approved an agreement that pays The Dimension Mill, Inc. $200,000 each year for two years to “advance the City’s objectives for the Tech Center, Trades District and Bloomington’s innovation ecosystem…”

The Dimension Mill, Inc. is a non-profit corporation that operates the coworking space known as The Mill, in the former dimension mill of the Showers Brother furniture factory.

A key part of the agreement with the RDC is that The Mill will hire an executive director for the Trades District and technology center, to focus on development of the district, construction of a new technology center, and recruitment of tenants for the center.

The technology center is planned for the southeast corner of the Trades District, to be paid for with the help of a $3.5-million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration. Construction of the  technology center is supposed to start sometime in fall 2023.

At an early December 2022 meeting, Bloomington’s director of economic development Alex Crowley gave RDC members a heads up—that a proposal to support The Mill’s hire of a full time position would soon be put in front of them. At the time, Crowley said about the efforts needed to recruit companies to locate in the Trades District: “The problem is there is limited staff at the city to be able to do it to the extent that we want to do it.”

The money for the agreement between The Mill and the RDC won’t tap tax increment finance (TIF) money. Instead, it will use money in the city’s certified technology park (CTP) fund. Indiana’s department of local government finance records show a fund balance of about $168,000 in the CTP fund at the end of 2021.

At last Monday’s meeting, Pat East, who’s executive director of The Mill, said that The Mill is well positioned to handle the responsibilities that the agreement assigns to his organization—not just because of the geographic proximity. The Mill’s mission and vision—launching startups— is “right in line” with the idea of developing the Trades District overall, East said.

East also told the RDC that a candidate had been identified for the executive director position for the Trades District and technology center. “This person has a background in real estate and startups and investing in economic development,” East said. East said he thinks that once the RDC members find out who the candidate is, they will be very happy with them.

Responsibility for managing the future technology center was originally supposed to be shouldered by Trades District Technology Center, Inc. That’s a non-profit that was formed in September 2020 specifically for the purpose of handling operations of the center and recruiting tenants.

That would have been an approach similar to the one used for the adaptive reuse project that transformed the old Showers Brothers furniture factory’s dimension mill into The Mill, a coworking space that opened in 2018. The RDC took responsibility for the rehab project, while the non-profit called The Dimension Mill, Inc. took over responsibility for the operations of the building.

But as part of the agreement approved at Monday’s RDC meeting, the responsibility for managing the future technology center was transferred from one non-profit to another—from the Trades District Technology Center, Inc. to the Dimension Mill, Inc.

What, if any, role will the new 501(c)(3) announced by the city in mid-January play in the technology center? A Jan. 13 news release from the city includes the technology center in the mix of initiatives within the scope of the new non-profit organization, which is called City of Bloomington Capital Improvements, Inc. (CBCI).

The news release says: “These include arts-sector projects such as the Buskirk-Chumley Theater and the Waldron Arts Center, jobs and technology-sector-related projects such as the Trades District, including the planned federal EDA-funded Tech Center, and major housing opportunities in the new downtown Hopewell neighborhood.”

But at last Monday’s RDC meeting, Crowley was keen to clarify that CBCI would not be involved in the technology center and the Trades District—at least not at this point. About the deal between The Mill and the RDC approved at the meeting, Crowley said, “In our opinion, this agreement really sort of lessens, if not outright eliminates, the need for the 501(c)(3) to become involved in the Trades District.”

Crowley added, “At some future time, it could. But right now, it’s just not an urgent need. So we don’t see that as an important factor here.” According to Crowley, CBCI is really designed to help city staff increase its expertise and its capacity to handle new projects as they come up. That means the focus of CBCI will be the Hopewell neighborhood, Crowley said.

Crowley also said the Buskirk-Chumley and The Waldron would not be an initial focus for CBCI. Crowley thinks that CBCI will recognize that “when it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” That principle applies to the Buskirk-Chumley, Crowley said, which he described as “a city facility that is well managed by the BCT Management, Inc.”

Crowley also described The Waldron as “a city facility now, and it’s being well-managed by Constellation.”

Crowley said that it would be unlikely that CBCI would “come in and mess with something that’s that’s fine.”

Crowley’s remarks at Monday’s (Jan. 23) RDC meeting can be analyzed as a kind of response to the kind of concerns that had been expressed at the public mic at the end of the city council’s Jan. 18 meeting, by Von Welch, who is co-president of Constellation Stage and Screen.

The city’s announcement that it was forming CBCI “caught me by surprise,” Welch told the city council. As a board member of Constellation, the city’s announcement made Welch “uncomfortable with my ability to lead that board.” Welch said the ink had barely dried on the 5-year contract that Constellation had signed with the city for management of The Waldron.

3 thoughts on “Bloomington OKs $400K for promotion of Trades District development, tech center construction

  1. In December the RDC got a “heads up that a proposal was coming”, in January they actually receive and quickly pass it, yet in that month before public details and RDC approval a candidate for a $200K per year job was already identified. Not surprising, given the transparency that Bloomington has come to know and expect from the Hamilton administration. Now by all means let’s agree to Hamilton’s creation of a non-profit board…unencumbered by those pesky “Open Door” and public notice laws…to run the convention center, Buskirk-Chumley and Waldron, all based on Hamilton’s “pledge to be transparent”. Fool us once shame on you, fool us over and over again shame on us.

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