Divisiveness over a planned business center on St. Joseph County farmland casts a shadow over this commercial enterprise
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Indiana Enterprise Center is a massive 7,200-acre development planned to increase industrial and commercial jobs in St. Joseph County, Indiana. Located just west of South Bend in New Carlisle, the IEC is the brainchild of the county’s Department of Infrastructure, Planning, and Growth, which spent millions of dollars bringing it to fruition. Proponents of the IEC say it will create jobs, provide economic development in the county, and attract more people to the area.
The problem is that the land designated for the IEC is currently prime farmland. The project has gained strong opposition from a group calling themselves the Open Space and Agricultural Alliance. They’ve actively voiced concerns about the development destroying natural resources, changing the face of New Carlisle, and forever losing good farmland. And they produced a documentary highlighting their efforts to stop the project.
The controversy is taking place (almost literally) in my backyard. (I previously shared that my house is positioned on a former strawberry patch.) I see anti-IEC signs in yards as I drive into the city every morning. And I can’t help but think that OSAA has a point — the City of South Bend is home to a number of abandoned and dilapidated industrial properties. Why can’t the county clean those up and redevelop them instead of ruining farms?
I’m certainly sympathetic to the OSAA’s position. New Carlisle is mostly rural, with all the small town charm you can handle. It’s surrounded by acres and acres of open fields, and farmers in the area largely produce seed corn. A large industrial park will dramatically change the town, introduce new sources of pollution, and literally change the landscape of New Carlisle.
Unfortunately, the residents of New Carlisle were given little say in whether they even wanted this project. A poll conducted by OSAA and the New Carlisle Economic Development Area found that 79 percent of residents opposed the IEC. When the county asked for public comment in the summer of 2020, it received 305 responses — most of which were in opposition to the IEC.
The lack of community involvement speaks to the heavy handed approach the county has taken, giving rise to a huge complaint: a lack of transparency. According to OSAA, the county only scheduled a public meeting on the IEC after two years of demands from residents. By that time, the county had already spent millions of dollars developing their plans.
It’s not a stretch to say that the way it was handled smacks of the “big city” or “big county” government imposing its will on the people of New Carlisle. It’s precisely the type of thing that makes rural Americans leery of their city-dwelling neighbors.
The South Bend Tribune, the area’s main newspaper, has even criticized the way the county has acted. It again called for greater transparency when a secret plan to build an almost-2,000-acre solar farm adjacent to the IEC came to light in 2021:
“In a 2019 comment, we urged county officials to change their strategy for engaging residents about the industrial park, that they’ve opened themselves up to criticism with their haphazard and spotty communication. We pointed out that the county had spent millions on consultant fees for planning and studies, ‘yet there is a feeling among residents that officials aren’t being forthright about the plans.’
“The secrecy surrounding the solar farm project provides yet another example of the lack of transparency surrounding St. Joseph County development. That’s an old, familiar feeling, and not a good one.”
I can’t help but echo that sentiment. Why should an unelected group of bureaucrats be able to force an industrial park on residents who don’t want it? As I mentioned previously, there are so many abandoned and dilapidated properties in the area that need to be cleaned up. Why not choose those locations and protect the area’s farmland?
OSAA envisions a different approach to thinking about economic development:
Farms and natural areas are precious assets for our county that benefit all county residents. Well managed, they protect soil fertility, water quality, and biodiversity. They provide a beautiful, healthful setting for outdoor recreation and make durable contributions to the local economy. They are also irreplaceable: Once a farm or natural area is turned into an industrial site, a residential neighborhood, or a strip mall, it can never be restored to its former condition. Sustainable development for St. Joseph County, then, should focus on in-fill development that sensibly re-uses existing industrial sites and revitalizes historic neighborhoods to sustain the vibrant and balanced mix of landscapes — urban, suburban, small-town, rural, and natural — with which our county is blessed.
That certainly seems like a better approach to me.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.