Transparency needed on Boone County economic development project

October 14, 2022 7:00 am

A Boone County innovation district has a rocky beginning; clarity needed. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s handling of an attempt to create a massive high-tech park in Boone County leaves a lot to be desired.

And while local citizens there are pushing back hard, Hoosiers as a whole should be watching.

That’s because the approach to this “innovation district” is new and unique in Indiana – with the state buying up land with your taxpayer dollars and very little public information available. It is happening in central Indiana now but could happen elsewhere at any time.

I want to be up front and say that I live in Boone County and have a corn field across from my house. It has been our home going on 10 years and we love the mix of rural, industrial and suburban the county brings. But I am not personally impacted by the planned location and generally am open to development. There is a large project starting less than a mile from my house that I hope succeeds.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and lawmakers should keep an eye on the district to ensure everyone is treated fairly before the process is repeated elsewhere.

But the LEAP Lebanon Innovation and Research District is an unknown and isn’t following conventional rules.

First off, even the size is unclear. The rumor mill runs anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 acres. For comparison, Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus is about 2,500 acres.

I reached out to try to get clarity from the IEDC and Spokeswoman Erin Sweitzer said, “We don’t have a final/official acreage number to share.”

The Indianapolis Business Journal has reported the state has about 6,000 total acres under contract.

A limited liability corporation is optioning land on behalf of the state. When asked by the State Budget committee in a public meeting, the IEDC earlier this year said the price per acre is between $50,000 and $91,000.

But, again, the economic development agency isn’t sharing that with regular Hoosiers. Sweitzer told the Capital Chronicle the “cost per acre is subject to negotiations with individual landowners. The IEDC and our partners continue to try and get the best value for taxpayers as we implement this transformational initiative.”


Jim Love, who formed the Boone County Preservation Group, said recent farmland sales in the county are about $17,000 an acre. The IEDC offered him money for his 200-acre farm – “more than it’s worth for farm ground, but not significantly enough for the inconvenience of trying to replace it.”

He has a home on the land, and his brother and father also have homes there. His son farms the land.

A Monday meeting of the preservation group drew hundreds who have concerns about changing the nature of the county and people losing their homes.

State officials often point to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina as a template for the innovation district. This is the largest research park in the nation and comprises 7,000 acres.

But details are scant so far, other than that Eli Lilly and Co. will anchor the development with a $2.1 billion investment in manufacturing facilities.

Other than that, the state is either being purposely coy or doesn’t know exactly what will eventually land there due to the long-term nature of a buildout.

But that isn’t comforting to nervous residents who embrace the agricultural identity.

“Once you put concrete over farmland, it’s gone forever,” Love said.

Water and more

Another major issue is water. It’s clear millions of gallons of water would be needed to run these manufacturing and research facilities. Love said members of his group recently met with IEDC officials showing a sprawling campus with parks and trails.

Concerning water, they were told a wastewater treatment plant might be built west of Lafayette and water will be shipped in.

Sweitzer would only say, “The IEDC is working with city, county and other stakeholders on a regional water solution to resolve the area’s water shortage for decades to come.”

The Boone County Preservation Group currently is trying to focus its efforts on reducing the scope of the project by eliminating what they consider to be extraneous green spaces. And they are trying to make sure landowners understand their rights. Eminent domain cannot be used to take the land but some have felt pressured because they have been told by state envoys that everyone around them is selling.

“Some didn’t read the contract well enough and have gotten themselves in some deals they wish they could get out of,” Love said.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and lawmakers should keep an eye on the district to ensure everyone is treated fairly before the process is repeated elsewhere.


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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.