o understand how things are popping as they are in Lebanon, Indiana, it helps to know that growth was on the way. The question was what to do about it. That’s how Mayor Matthew Gentry saw it.
Half an hour north of expanding Indianapolis and about the same distance south of Lafayette and powerful Purdue University, Lebanon lies in the heart of Boone County, the second-fastest-growing county in Indiana. Corporate investors have taken notice of Boone County, having announced more than $2.2 billion worth of capital projects there since 2020.
Mayor Gentry says Lebanon was “at a tipping point” between its rural roots and the growth that was inevitably coming its way when he was first elected in 2015.
“I have always felt that the best way to manage the situation was to take control over it and try to bend it our will, so speak, to leverage it to our advantage,” Gentry tells Site Selection.
Father of two young sons and devoted to “trying to build a community where my kids are going to grow up and want to come back to,” and to finding “the best way to get there,” Gentry not only had a vision, but helped put it in motion. New restaurants, new retail options, a medical complex and a sprawling sports facility. A high-end golf community. After years of planning, it was starting to happen. And that was before LEAP.
Spearheaded by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), the 10,000-acre LEAP Innovation District, a massive project beginning to take shape within Lebanon’s expanding boundaries, is Indiana’s bid to earn a foothold in the race to attract megaprojects in healthcare, semiconductors, EV manufacturing and other industries driven by federal investments and emerging technologies.
LEAP, says Gentry, is “Indiana’s attempt to compete on a national and international level for next-generation jobs right here in central Indiana.”
Shortly after word reached Lebanon last spring that the LEAP District was coming, Eli Lilly announced itself as LEAP’s initial tenant. Lilly is investing $2.1 billion in an R&D and manufacturing campus that’s to include two 330,000-sq.-ft. facilities dedicated to peptide manufacturing. The Lilly campus is to create up to 500 jobs, and the company expects full buildout to employ 1,500 construction workers.
As consequential as it is, Lilly’s 600-acre campus will fill less than one-tenth of the LEAP District’s expected eventual footprint. Perhaps tops among their ambitions, officials hope to lure a semiconductor manufacturing facility along the lines of those recently announced that represent investments in the tens of billions of dollars. Talks along those lines have begun, officials say.
“LEAP Lebanon,” says IEDC, “will be home to hundreds of companies devoted to boundary-breaking projects in the life sciences, microelectronics, ag-tech, clean tech, electrification and EV innovation.”
The Groundwork is Laid
There’s a widely accepted theory that IEDC chose Lebanon for the LEAP District based not only on the availability of a big chunk of land, but also on Boone County’s growth curve and its proximity to both Indianapolis and Purdue, which spins out waves of ideas and talent. Interstate 65 is a major plus.
Another advantage Lebanon enjoys going in is being a public power community. Indiana Municipal Power Agency provides the City of Lebanon with low-cost, reliable and environmentally responsible wholesale power, a proven boon for major projects.
Andrew Card believes there was still more to it than that. Card, founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based Card & Associates, is the unofficial impresario of Lebanon’s future, having partnered with Mayor Gentry on a far-flung, $400 million development called Hickory Junction on prime property bordering I-65.
“I’ve been working on this for four years,” Card tells Site Selection, “and they knew what I was doing. They also knew about all the residential that’s going in. I believe that’s one of the reasons they chose Boone County for the LEAP District.”
From his office in Indianapolis, the irrepressible Card confirms that, yes, he is not former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, “depending,” he laughs, “on who I need to get on the phone.”
When Card proposes youth sports as Lebanon’s ticket, it’s no laughing matter. With a solid track record and reams of data to back him up, he’s projecting that his $115 million, 270,000-sq.ft. multisport Field House will bring at least 60,000 people to Lebanon each month, and quite possibly many more.
“Sports tourism has gone crazy,” Card tells Site Selection. “We had a lot of steam already, and then coming out of COVID it’s like it shot out of a cannon. Before COVID,” he says, “sports tourism was probably a $32 billion industry and now it’s past $49 billion, and I don’t see any end in sight.”
Card says he has letters of intent from businesses eager to set up shop within Hickory Junction’s 95 acres to feed, house and amenitize the expected throngs of athletes and their families coming in for Nike and AAU-level basketball events, as well as volleyball, soccer, flag football, lacrosse and softball competitions, “all the field sports you can imagine,” Card says. He can configure the column-less indoor arena, he says, for auto and card shows and other such draws. And, of course, there’s pickleball.
“You’ve got to have pickleball,” Card says. “There’s 34 million people playing it now, so we’ve changed our model a little bit. We’re putting in 20 pickleball courts. We’re going to be at the cutting edge of that.”
Huge Challenge, Bigger Potential Payoff
In partnership with Bel Canto, a national developer with a billion-dollar portfolio of multi-family developments, Card & Associates is soon to break ground on a 300-unit apartment community within Hickory Junction. The 30-acre village is to incorporate multiple outdoor gathering spots and a resort-style pool and fitness center among attractive, cottage-style rental units, a concept, says Card, that’s “the hottest thing going across the country among baby boomers and professionals.”
It is, however, a much larger residential undertaking that represents the third in what is Lebanon’s amazing trifecta of era-defining projects. Based in nearby Westfield, Henke Development Group is leading the 2,000-acre Waterford project, a vision of such scope that it is expected to unfold over decades. The planned golf course community is to offer single-family homes as well as town homes and apartments and could also grow to include industrial and office opportunities. City officials say Waterford could add 8,000 new residents, which would be a 50% expansion of Lebanon’s current population.
Talk about “in transition.” With Hickory Junction and Waterford already in motion, Mayor Gentry acknowledges that the prospect of absorbing the state’s LEAP Innovation District “was kind of like a nuclear bomb” at first. Nor is there a bolt-on prescription for facilitating a project so expansive that it could bring 50,000 jobs to a town of 17,000 residents.
“There are challenges that come with it,” Gentry says. “We only have so much bandwidth, and how do you keep all those balls in the air? It’s going to be a process, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But I and others have realized the potential of what the LEAP District could do for our citizens and what this could do for our community. It puts us on the map,” he says.
This Investment Profile was prepared under the auspices of the Indiana Municipal Power Agency. For more information, contact Bryan Brackemyre at 317- 575-3879 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the web, go to www.impa.com.
Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.