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County sees sharp decline in COVID-19 cases

For the first time in more than four months, Knox County on Wednesday reported no new COVID-19 cases, followed by only two confirmed cases on Thursday.

“We’re just a half point away from going blue,” county health officer Dr. Alan Stewart said, referencing the least-severe designation on the state’s color-coded metrics map.

Currently, Knox County is painted yellow, the second most severe designation, after spending several weeks in orange.

Over the past five days, the county has reported just seven new cases, bringing the total number of active cases down to 45 — a far cry from days that reached as high as 335 active cases during the holiday surge.

The drastically reduced caseload brings much-needed relief to local healthcare workers — with Good Samaritan reporting only three Knox County residents as currently receiving in-patient care for COVID-19; none of them are on ventilators or in intensive care at this time.

Nearby Pike, Sullivan and Daviess counties are all currently in the blue on the state map, and Stewart said Knox County would have joined them if it weren’t for one day last week that saw 23 new cases.

“National numbers are going down too,” Stewart said, “even in areas that haven’t had a great vaccine rollout.”

While it’s too soon to pinpoint a specific cause in the sharp drop in cases, Stewart speculates there may be a few contributing factors.

“I think we’re seeing some pockets of early herd immunity for one,” he said, specifically referencing populations in places like long-term care facilities that were previously battling outbreaks not that many months ago.

While folks over 80 account for only about 7% of the population, Stewart explained that roughly 60% of the 82 local deaths came from that elderly demographic.

“And that age group really came out in droves when the vaccine became available,” Stewart added.

While continued vaccinations, as well as improved masking and social distancing efforts, are making a significant difference, he says there’s also the possibility of a somewhat natural waxing and waning of the virus.

“Look at the pandemic flu that hit in early 1918, and then hit again with a vengeance that fall,” Stewart said. “So we’re going to have to continue to watch that.”

Though the community must remain vigilant and proactive, Stewart says there is certainly good reason to be optimistic.

“We will be allowing the community to open up more as our color continues to get better,” he said, noting the county’s seven day positivity rate has now dropped to 3.2%. Just one month ago that number was nearly five times higher.

Knox County has now recorded a total of 3,539 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic nearly a year ago.

Indiana has seen 652,210 total cases and 11,854 fatalities from the virus.

Pantheon Board readies exterior improvement plan

Members of the Pantheon Board on Thursday gave their stamp of approval to a preliminary design for exterior improvements set for the Pantheon: A Business and Innovation Theatre.

The city this fall secured a more than $730,000 federal grant to help pay for an exterior restoration of the historic theatre-turned-co-working space at 428 Main St.

Architects with Myszak and Partners Architecture and Development, Vincennes, have been working to outline exactly what all that work will entail — everything from new windows and doors to much-needed tuck-pointing and terra cotta restoration — and now with the Pantheon Board’s blessing, the design will be sent to the Economic Development Administration for final approval.

Alan Knepp with Myszak and Partners said while they can’t be certain when the EDA will offer a go-ahead — or of what questions officials there may have — architects do have a timeline they’d like to try to stick to.

Knepp told the Pantheon Board — a 5-member group comprised of appointments made by city and county elected officials — that they hope to have EDA approval in as little as three weeks, which would allow them to bid the project in mid-March.

They’d like to receive bids, he said, about a month later and award the contract in May.

Sticking to that timeline, however tight, he said, would allow them to issue a notice to proceed to a contractor as early as June 1.

That would then give the contractor until Dec. 31 to finish. Any later and Knepp is worried about winter weather causing delays.

“If this (timeline) gets pushed back too much, you can see the weather we’re having,” he said, nodding toward one of the Pantheon’s large second-floor windows to the near foot of snow that has fallen in the last week.

“If that happens, I worry (completion) wouldn’t then be until the spring of 2022.”

Included in the exterior restoration is several new windows on the second floor as well as a restoration of the storefront windows on its Fifth Street corner.

The building, too, will get other, new exterior doors — the main entry doors have already been replaced — as well as tuck-pointing to about 90% of the building’s brick exterior, including the restoration of the wall leading back to the restrooms in the adjacent pocket park.

The grant will also pay for the restoration of some of architectural terra cotta details on the building’s facade as well as new gutters and downspouts to protect everything once it’s done.

Likely the most visible change will be the addition of a historic-inspired marquee, one that will reach out about 6 feet over the sidewalk and 32 feet across the front.

While there is a conceptual design, some of the marquee’s most intricate details are still to be decided, Knepp explained.

Improvements aren’t, however, limited to just the outside.

Inside the co-working space, the grant is expected to pay for some equipment for a maker’s space, things like laser cutters and 3-D printers, and Myszak and Partners also included alternate projects — ones that will be bid separately — like a stage curtain that would help with both privacy and acoustics as well as some possible room dividers or sound panels that could be used in the balcony.

“Doing it that way just protects our budget,” Knepp explained. “If something comes in too high, we can adjust as we need to.”

Pantheon executive director Nichole Like said despite those being alternate projects, they will likely be of the utmost priority.

Concerns have mounted as groups, mainly governing bodies, have met in the building’s balcony in recent weeks. The acoustics aren’t ideal, she said, and it can be difficult to hear, especially with people co-working below.

“It’s going to be important to have some kind of area we can close off in the co-working space or do something different on the balcony,” she said.

The co-working space and small business incubator, which has direct ties to Purdue University, opened in early December.

The building itself is jointly owned by city and county elected officials, who split the cost of the interior $2.4 million transformation.

Day-to-day operations are governed by a separate, larger operating board.

RDC still suck on how to fund major housing project

Members of the city’s Redevelopment Commission continue to find themselves at a stalemate with three local brothers interested in taking on a major housing project on the city’s southeast side.

RDC members met once again this month to take back up discussions of the possible Lincoln Heights subdivision, a project proposed by Butch, Eric and David Niehaus, co-owners of Niehaus Companies.

Dubbed Lincoln Heights, the development trio is preparing to purchase multiple lots adjacent to Quail Run Road, specifically behind Herman Family Dentistry; Lincoln High School is located just across Hart Street.

The plan would be to work with builders by providing inexpensive lots to construct as many as 129 homes in that space. Niehaus Companies would then profit from selling those builders the necessary materials.

The Niehauses initially asked the RDC to put up the cost of necessary infrastructure, or about $2.3 million, a move that would allow them to keep the lots cheap.

RDC members questioned whether or not that was possible, and on Thursday, they learned — at least mostly — that their suspicions were right.

“It’s all about risk. We’re looking at it just like you are, only from the other side,” RDC president Tim Smith told Butch, Eric and David Niehaus as they met at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.

“We’re interested. I just don’t know how we get there.”

RDC members last month directed their financial advisors with Seymour’s Reedy Financial Services to look more closely at the development of a new residential- specific Tax Increment Finance Zone, a move they though could raise the funds necessary to grant the Niehauses’ request.

But the information wasn’t exactly what they’d hoped to hear, at least not in terms of a speedy timeline.

Condel Bowen, an advisor with Reedy, ran the numbers and said assuming the Niehauses could build 125 homes in four years — and with the expectation that each of them would sell for at least $200,000 — the RDC could potentially collect $175,000 in revenue each year over the course of the 25-year life span of the residential TIF, for a total of $3.8 million.

It’s not a lot of revenue, Bowen pointed out, not to mention that building 125 homes in four years would be an extraordinary feat.

“But this is the absolute best picture,” Bowen told the group, reminding them that everything — from sale price to projected assessed value — would need to go according to plan in order for the RDC to collect the full $175,000 per year.

The deal would likely look something like this: the RDC would set up the residential TIF, essentially drawing its lines around the proposed development, then would capture any increase in property tax revenue as a result of construction.

The RDC could then pay out that $175,000 — or a portion of it — per year over 25 years to the developer as a kind of reimbursement for infrastructure costs.

Doing it this way would, Bowen pointed out, would serve as an incentive to the developer. The better the development performs, the more money they are paid over the course of the 25 years.

But it’s a huge risk for a developer to take. And it requires a major up-front investment.

The Niehauses countered with a different proposal; they asked the RDC to consider giving them $200,000 over seven years using existing TIF revenue in addition to the revenue that would created by any residential TIF created.

That deal, however, shifts the risk onto the RDC itself.

“That would be a big obligation,” Bowen told commission members.

Smith, too, pointed out that such a deal struck would essentially pay the Neihauses “twice” and leave the RDC no way to reimburse itself for the $1.4 million paid out over seven years.

Butch Niehaus, however, said that was the deal with which the brothers were “the most comfortable” in terms of possibly moving forward.

Time, however, is of the essence, and creating the residential TIF, Bowen pointed out, would take months, even years. They wouldn’t see a dime until 2025.

RDC members, too, have said they likely won’t move forward with any kind of investment at all without the results of a housing study being taken on by several local entities, one expected to hone in on the exact gaps in the local housing market.

Officials have for years talked of the need for more mid-range-priced homes; this study, spearheaded by the Knox County Development Corp. will say for sure.

But the Niehauses need to decide soon whether or not they will move forward with the purchase of the land.

Smith said as much as he is concerned with whether or not the RDC can fund the project, he’s just as concerned with the need for more housing.

“But with all that said, it’s going to be tough for us to do the $200,000 for seven years, extremely tough,” he said.

RDC member Greg Parsley, also superintendent of the Vincennes Community School Corp., said while he is “100% supportive of the (housing) project,” he, too, is worried “from a financial aspect.”

RDC member Bob Slayton agreed that the “barriers are pretty steep” despite the Niehauses’ project being “a tremendous vision that meets a tremendous need in the community.”

And RDC member Marc McNeece agreed that, at least financially, the deal proposed by the Niehauses likely wasn’t possible.

“We can’t do $200,000 over seven years without paying ourselves back with the new residential TIF money,” he said.

The RDC has committed to other, smaller housing projects in recent months and will, over the next couple of years, finish up with a three-phase, multi-million dollar effort to improve Main Street.

Looking ahead, it would be best to prioritize what their priorities are in terms of spending the remaining RDC funds; a large portion of the existing TIF is expected to expire in 2027.

McNeece did, however, suggest that those aged 27-33 make up the most populace group in the country right now. And those people, he said, are looking for communities in which to put down roots.

“So how do we get them here?” he asked, adding that the city’s lack of housing is a significant downfall.

Butch Niehaus, too, said many people are looking to relocate to Indiana right now, especially from neighboring Illinois, due to tax incentives being offered by state officials.

Now is the time, he said, to capitalize on that.

Parsley, however, pointed out that the RDC has looked, too, at other housing needs, such as incentivizing developers interested in restoring historic homes or building in-fill on empty lots throughout the city.

The RDC, he suggested, needs to remain nimble to meet those needs.

The bottom line, however, is that if the the two groups want to work together, more waiting is necessary.

“We just all need to keep thinking, figure out how we do this,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, that’s the best we can tell you today. We’re certainly interested; we just have to figure out how to pay for it.

“We have to find a place where we’re there and you’re there and everybody’s there.”

Winter storm delays Indiana COVID-19 vaccine expansion plans

INDIANAPOLIS — A winter storm that coated Indiana with heavy snow has disrupted thousands of coronavirus vaccine appointments and delayed the state's timeline for expanding shots to additional populations.

More than 80 clinics around the state closed due to the weather, and upwards of 43,000 vaccine appointments will need to be rescheduled, the state health department’s chief medical officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver announced Wednesday.

Most clinics did not remove vaccines from their freezers ahead of the winter weather, which spared doses from being wasted, Weaver said.

Vaccine shipments to Indiana were also interrupted, health officials said. By Wednesday, the state still had not received its weekly allocation of Moderna vaccines.

As a result, Indiana won't yet expand vaccine eligibility beyond those aged 65 and older. Health officials said they hope to make shots available to the next age group — the state's 432,000 60- to 64-year-olds — as early as next week, once shipments get back on schedule.

“We will see how the weather continues to impact our shipments, but hopefully we will be able to expand as soon as sometime next week,” Weaver said, emphasizing that the state will need a “large influx” of vaccine before further widening eligibility to the 858,000 Hoosiers aged 50 and above.

There is still no timeline in place for Indiana's teachers and other essential workers to become eligible for COVID-19 shots, however.

Gov. Eric Holcomb said Indiana should be getting a “small increase” in vaccine doses moving forward, although he expressed concerns about vaccines that will soon be provided to federally qualified health centers and community health clinics within Indiana.

The Republican governor said health officials want to be able to monitor “need and supply” with the state’s current system, in addition to tracking who is getting vaccinated.

“We’re never going to turn away more doses, we love that,” Holcomb said Wednesday. “But we want to know where the doses are going."

Weaver said more than 60% of the state's eligible populations have already been vaccinated or have appointments to get shots.

That total includes about 57% of Hoosiers 80 and older, 65% of Hoosiers aged 70, and older, and 56% of Hoosiers aged 65 to 69. The number also includes about 68% of eligible health care workers and first responders, in addition to nearly 98,000 doses that have been administered to residents and staff in long term care facilities, Weaver said.

To date, about 17,000 out of state residents have received vaccine who live in neighboring states but work in Indiana.

Weaver maintained the state's vaccine wastage “has been minimal," noting that of the more than 1.3 million doses Indiana has received so far, only 172 doses have been lost.

As Indiana’s rates of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths continued a steep decline after peaking in early December, state health officials additionally lowered the risk level for COVID-19 spread in more counties.

The state Department of Health on Wednesday reported 933 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total number of Hoosiers known to have the virus up to 651,453.

Health officials also added 20 recent coronavirus deaths to the statewide total, pushing it to 12,250 fatalities including both confirmed and presumed COVID-19 infections.

The health department reported that 955 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday at Indiana’s hospitals. That marks the first time since Oct. 4 that fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 patients were recorded by the state.

The state Department of Health’s weekly tracking map updated Wednesday labels no counties in the highest-risk red category for the first time since late September. That is down from 73 of the 92 counties in that category last month.

This week’s map lists eight counties in the next-riskiest orange category, a drop from 40 one week earlier.

“Our color-coded county maps look the best that they have looked in months. This is all positive news," said Dr. Kristina Box, the state health commissioner. “We continue to move in the right direction, but please, please continue to wear your masks, stay socially distanced and stay home when you’re sick and get tested.”


Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.