Local business working on efficient, affordable housing initiative

Local business working on efficient, affordable housing initiative

HELMSBURG — A Brown County business is making plans to create more options for housing, while creating local jobs for craftsmen and tradespeople at the same time.

The Beamery moved into the former For Bare Feet sock factory building in Helmsburg in 2014. Formerly of Whitestown, the company specializes in timber frame construction, a traditional mortise-and-tenon method of putting together a building.

Timber-frame structures are often rustic and attention-grabbing. They don’t look like houses you see everywhere. Much of the Beamery’s work is in the “high-end, custom” sector of the market, said owner and lead architect David Watters.

However, Watters and business partner John Kitterman have been talking with the Brown County Redevelopment Commission about Brown County’s housing market and how they could work together. Prices for Brown County real estate continue to rise, pricing out first-time and entry-level homebuyers.

The Beamery is now “in the funding stage” of an offshoot company called Beamery Works. It would build smaller, 600 to 1,200-square-foot homes or office spaces using timber-frame construction along with structural insulated panel walls, known as SIPs, and a premanufactured foundation.

The homes could be built onto over time in the same way, allowing their owners to expand as they need and are able.

These homes would be built inside The Beamery building in Helmsburg — including exterior and interior finishes — then disassembled and shipped to the building site, where they’d be put back together.

Watters believes this method would cut down significantly on the most time-consuming part of home building — the onsite labor. With each home being designed in a similar way, the manufacturing and construction process can be streamlined and done in an indoor environment instead of figuring it out on the site in uncertain weather.

When they’re up to full speed — with more staff and a specialized timber-cutting/fabricating machine — he believes they could produce a new, 600-square-foot house every three days.

“We’re a little ways out from that, obviously,” Watters said last week. The company does not have this machine yet, and it would need about 30 staff when right now it has 10.

“It’s a big goal,” he said, “but it’s very doable.”

He’s estimating that the cost of these homes would be about $200 per square foot — which is higher than the median cost per square foot of existing Brown County homes for sale now.

But these would be brand-new homes, and built to maximize energy efficiency and cut down on monthly utility costs. When you’re building small, the cost per square foot tends to be higher because you still need to put a kitchen, appliances, bathroom and other high-dollar items into a smaller space, Watters told the READI grant planning group earlier this month.

There could also be an option to buy a “shell” home that an owner could finish himself, which could run about $100 per square foot, Watters said last week.

The READI group has devoted its last two meetings to talking about housing. The Beamery was invited to talk about this concept and what it would need to get going. The READI group has been collecting information about what could go into the regional READI grant application which could bring up to $50 million in grant money to the 11-county Indiana Uplands area, of which Brown County is a part. Any grant money awarded will require a match in some proportion from local government, businesses and philanthropy.

Watters and Kitterman did not make a specific ask of the READI group. The two groups were mostly learning about each other at the July 15 meeting, and it hasn’t been decided yet which projects will go into the READI application for this region.

The company plans to build a prototype home somewhere in Helmsburg, possibly on The Beamery’s land, so potential customers could see the design and the size.

They’re currently working on a development in Lawrence County being built in a similar way.

Kitterman and Watters have been talking with the RDC about building some of these homes on properties that come from the Brown County Community Investment Corporation — a nonprofit land bank that acquires and resells land through tax sales and donations — if that concept gets through various approval channels. The land bank would be a way to convert land that contains dilapidated, vacant homes now into sites for new homes instead. Homes built on land bank parcels would be offered at controlled prices to keep costs affordable for home-seekers with less buying power.

“I know that they’ve been working on that, obviously looking at properties throughout the county that are dilapidated. That’s part of where this particular project would work, because it’s easy to transport, and for those types of properties, people are going to be probably looking for smaller homes,” Watters said.

“Unfortunately, developers have gotten into the habit of building big huge boxes, and I don’t think people need quite the amount of space that has been built. So, that’s kind of on the line of the discussions that we’ve had with them (the RDC).”

As a business owner, Watters would like to find more qualified employees in Brown County. With the Eagle Manufacturing program at the high school training students in advanced manufacturing, some of those students could one day end up finding a job right at home in their field. If workers move here from somewhere else, they, too will encounter the challenges that other house-seekers are seeing, with high demand and high prices.

“That’s a part of this opportunity, is that we’d be providing housing along with providing jobs,” Watters said.

“One of the reasons I moved down here from Indianapolis was … the affordability part, and it was the quality of living. I lived up in Carmel and commuted here for four years after I bought the property in Helmsburg, and I joke with people that my first 20 minutes of every day around I-465 was all stress, and the closer I got to Brown County, the nicer the commute got. I think a lot of people are looking for that.

“But the tough part has been that there hasn’t been employment, so everybody’s had to commute in the other direction,” he said. “A lot of tradesmen that live in this area have to go up to Indianapolis to work, which is unfortunate. So, we’re trying to provide some of that here. Obviously, with these type of buildings, we’ll be employing plumbers, electricians, other trades, which should help the economy here.

“We probably won’t get back quite to the sock factory employment (which was 151 jobs),” he said, “but we’re working in that direction.”

Some of the work will be automated once they get this fabrication machine, but people trained in computer-aided design and manufacturing will be needed to run it, “along with some craft, some actual hands-on type of work, so, a combination of the two,” he said.

At the READI group meeting, Kitterman also mentioned using this type of structure to build office spaces and then moving established, high-tech jobs to Brown County. That is possible because Brown County — including Helmsburg — has fiber-optic internet, something other rural counties and communities don’t.

“As important as anything is really bringing employment to the county … because that’s the only way we’re going to keep our people … and the closer that is, the better it is,” Watters said last week. “And hopefully, this will spur that on.

“… Obviously, technology is driving future employment. But that’s a good thing, because as we’ve all learned this past year, you don’t have to get in your vehicle and drive a great distance to go to a job. You can live in a beautiful place.”

Other housing ideas

Other projects to increase housing inventory in Brown County are being discussed around the county. Here are a few other ideas mentioned at READI group meetings this month:

Creekside apartments: The former Creekside Retreat, which closed permanently in March 2020 because of frequent flood damage, could become apartments once again. Dax Norton, strategic direction adviser for Nashville, reported at the July 15 READI meeting that the owners had been in talks with various local officials about rehabilitating these buildings into long-term residences. They had been apartments (Wabash Village, Creekstone Apartments) until the property was turned into a hotel/retreat center in 2014-15. The land is in a floodplain, so the bottom floors would have to be used for parking or storage only, but the top floors could be living space. Installing a levee around the entire property to keep out flood water also has been discussed, Norton said. Replacing the culvert under State Road 46, which the Army Corps of Engineers identified as the “preliminary diagnosis” of the flooding, has been discussed as well, said Maddison Miller of the Brown County Community Foundation. Various grant sources are becoming available to do work such as this. The owner is possibly interested in donating the property, Miller said. The owner also had been in talks with the Sycamore Land Trust about turning the property back into natural space or park land that would include a retention pond, Norton said, but several people at the READI meeting said they thought that housing would be a better use for this land since there are already buildings on it that could be rehabilitated, and it used to be housing before.

Tourist home creep: Jane Gore, president of the town council, former member of the zoning board and member of the Area Plan Commission, repeated a concern she’s expressed several times over the years, that too many family homes are being converted into tourist rentals. “Every one of those that the BZA converts is where somebody could be living,” she said. Past attempts to put limits on how many tourist homes can exist have not been successful. Any such change would require an alteration of the county’s zoning ordinance. Tourist homes do pay higher property taxes than regular homes, and they pay innkeepers tax. But innkeepers tax does not go to pay for county services for residents; it is spent to support tourism. If working families lived in those homes, they would generate income tax for Brown County, which is the primary funder of local government and services.

“Mini neighborhoods”: This would be a condominium-type living situation where each home doesn’t have a lot of property to go along with it, but there is shared property among them, said town council Vice President Nancy Crocker.

Subsidy aid: Constructing a multifamily building may cost so much that the builder cannot afford to offer units at a price low enough for local people to afford, such as those who work in retail. Mark Lindenlaub, of Thrive Alliance, mentioned that there are different ways to bring in subsidies that would bridge the gap between the cost of construction and the cost of what unit would sell or rent for.

The READI planning group intends to submit ideas for projects that could be funded with READI dollars — even if they are just at the concept stage — to the regional organizers of the Indiana Uplands’ application this week.

Where we are with READI

All 11 counties in the Indiana Uplands region are working together to submit one application for READI grant funding, which could be worth up to $50 million. Brown County is in the Indiana Uplands region. Any local governments in Indiana were eligible to form a group and submit applications for projects. (The deadline for joining a group has passed.)

Regional Opportunities Initiative (ROI) is coordinating this region’s application to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), which is in charge of making awards. Counties have until July 30 to submit possible projects for funding. There is no guarantee of how much each county will get, and for each project that is funded, the region will have to put up a 4:1 match with that money coming from businesses, local government and philanthropy.

In making grant awards, the IEDC will consider which projects have the greatest economic development potential; which applications focus on rural communities; the degree of regional collaboration; the application’s alignment with the state’s economic development priorities; and “any other criteria as determined by the board,” the evaluation guidelines say.

ROI has formed subcommittees focused on different project types to review all potential project submissions that come in from Indiana Uplands counties, said Maddison Miller, CEO of the Brown County Community Foundation (BCCF). The BCCF has been convening meetings to gather Brown County’s READI ideas. Each potential project requires a READI application, which asks questions about project scope, funding, impact and other details.

Miller advised the group to “go big” with suggestions.

The regional subcommittees will do the initial vetting of the project submissions to see if they fit into the program guidelines, if they are feasible, and how much can be accomplished on the project in the next few years, Miller said. She did not yet know how many projects would be put into the Indiana Uplands application or how the ROI group would submit projects for actual funding.

Brown County so far has one representative on a ROI regional subcommittee: Justin Schwenk, who is in the housing review group.

“We’re coming up with a huge number of projects, but keep in mind, it’s only $50 million divided among 11 counties. So what Brown County stands to actually have funded remains to be seen,” he said.

Miller hoped to learn more about the process this week and said she would convene a meeting of the local READI group for noon Thursday if there was anything new to share. Those meetings, in the BCCF building’s lower level, are open to the public.

Anyone may submit an idea for a READI project; they do not have to go through the local READI planning group. The direct URL to submit a project idea is https://regionalopportunityinc.org/readi-proposals. Submissions are due to ROI by July 30.