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Gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden sees small towns as key for Indiana’s future

GOP candidate Eric Doden shakes hands with a voter at a Brown County event. The gubernatorial candidate has focused on small towns, zero-cost adoption and more over his three-year campaign. (Provided photo/Eric Doden campaign)

(INDIANA CAPITAL CHRONICLE) — The longest-running Republican candidate for governor jumped into the race three years ago and kickstarted the advertising push just one week after the 2022 midterms — and Eric Doden’s campaign consistently published detailed proposals throughout the campaign. 

“(Launching early) allowed us to develop relationships. It’s allowed us to listen to people from all different kinds of backgrounds and perspectives,” Doden told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “Every idea that we have in writing has been improved by people at the local level.” 

Doden is one of six candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the governorship, including U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, Brad Chambers, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, former Attorney General Curtis Hill and Jamie Reitenour. 

On the Democrat side, Jennifer McCormick is uncontested and Libertarian Donald Rainwater has already been nominated at convention.

But polling has been lackluster for Doden and other candidates, with Braun ahead by double digits across a handful of polls. Doden dismissed the results, saying they’ve been wrong in the past and pointing to the large number of undecided voters.

“People make their decision with one week to go and so this is going to break late. And we know from grassroots and people on the ground that our message of restoring small towns and zero-cost adoption and reining in bureaucracy is resonating with voters all over the state,” Doden said. 

Both Doden and Chambers led the state’s economic development efforts, with Doden serving under former Gov. Mike Pence and Chambers under Gov. Eric Holcomb. 

But Doden distinguished his leadership of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation from Chambers’ vision, saying he would focus more on small town revitalization and a 92-county plan, rather than large projects in population centers.

“For 50 years, we have forgotten our small towns; we have not had a strategy. And, frankly, we have not had a 92-county strategy to restore communities all over the state of Indiana,” Doden said. “That’s why we really focus on Indiana Main Street and making sure that we have a strategy going forward for all 92 counties to be successful and for small towns — where 2.5 million people live — to be revitalized and restored.”

A love for small towns

The Fort Wayne-area businessman has experience with multiple companies, from rebar deliveries to high-end apartment developments. But it’s PAGO, USA, an institution that seeks to revitalize the Main Street district of small towns, that most directly relates to his hopes for Indiana. 

“We work with the community; we don’t own the buildings. We don’t believe that a developer should own the buildings in small towns — buildings should be owned by the community leaders,” Doden said. “We help put a deal together to restore about 10 buildings at a time.”

Doden touts the turnaround of Van Wert, Ohio as an example of what can happen when community and state leaders come together with a common mission. Building these teams are a skillset Doden says he would bring to the office if elected governor. 

The focus on small towns comes from his own life, Doden said, including a childhood spent in Butler and Auburn near Fort Wayne. While his current address is Fort Wayne, he said his family — which includes five children, one of whom is adopted — live on the outskirts closer to Leo-Cedarville. 

“We enjoy the mix of a little larger community but having small towns we can go to like Roanoke and Grabill. It’s a very rich experience,” he said, noting that Fort Wayne has over a dozen of these surrounding small communities. 

Additionally, he says redeveloping vacant buildings in downtown spaces of small communities creates affordable housing opportunities that are within walking distance of restaurants, stores and other amenities. These areas can also be a short drive from jobs in larger cities, he noted. 

But Doden’s proposals for Indiana aren’t limited to small towns — such as a specific plan for Indiana’s largest city and capital, Indianapolis — he even calls for continued collaborative efforts like Regional Cities and its more expensive offspring, READI. 

Calling himself the “architect” of Regional Cities, Doden said it brought cities and their surrounding towns or counties together — many for the first time. 

“If you go to South Bend and Elkhart, they’ll talk about the fact that, because of Regional Cities, their leadership teams have come together to have a comprehensive plan for the entire region where before they weren’t even meeting,” Doden said. “So I think the most powerful thing that’s happened is bringing leaders together to collaborate.”

But Doden said he would return to Regional Cities over READI to give more control to local leaders, who he said were responsible for 80-90% of project funds. 

“We’re going to continue Regional Cities and the reason we go back to Regional Cities is because it empowered local leaders to decide the highest and best use of the money versus the IEDC,” Doden said. “They should have a big say in how that regional economic development dollars should be used.”

He criticized the current direction of the IEDC, saying that it had pivoted to attracting large corporations over community growth. Instead, he proposed reserving 30-40% of IEDC funding for community development. 

“We’ll still have some money for attracting and retaining our businesses and growing jobs. So I think it’s a better balance … and allows us to grow in population,” Doden said. 

A developer himself, he said it isn’t appropriate for the state’s economic development agency to be one. 

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for an agency to use taxpayer dollars from 92 counties to spend billions of dollars in one county and act like a developer by buying land,” Doden said. “That’s not what government is good at; that’s not what government should be doing.”

Under Holcomb, the IEDC has purchased thousands of acres of land in Boone County for the controversial LEAP innovation district with the intention of developing “shovel ready” sites to sell to potential businesses. 

Instead, Doden said the IEDC should be focused on serving businesses in every county, including existing ones. 

Beyond small towns

Doden has repeatedly released “white papers” detailing plans, including one to freeze property taxes for seniors and a zero-cost adoption plan. He additionally flagged concerns with Indiana’s high health care costs, saying the industry lacked transparency. 

“You get the service and then find out later what it cost. And it’s not a very competitive industry,” Doden said. “You have six non-profit hospitals that have $35 billion in cash profits in Wall Street. We’ve called for $10 billion of that to be put back into an Indiana Main Street Fund to help communities prosper over time.”

The Wall Street investments have received criticism from economists and sitting lawmakers alike, with the General Assembly pointedly passing a bill to compare non-profit hospital prices with the current Medicare rate. 

But Doden said that Main Street Fund could also fund health and wellness projects in communities like trails or parks. In turn, this would decrease costs for hospitals by improving public health. 

A General Assembly two-year investment of $225 million into local public health departments designed to improve lackluster health outcomes — which are some of the worst in the country for tobacco use as well as maternal and infant mortality — would need careful oversight to win his support. 

“For example, Regional Cities … had we not seen such positive outcomes, (we wouldn’t have) continued that program. But the outcomes were so positive that they went further with it,” Doden said. “We’re going to look for the same thing — what are the outcomes, how was the money utilized, how effective was it. What can we point to that was done well?

“We’ve got to track that and see what that model looks like. This is kind of … the debates that you have between the executive branch and legislative branch, holding each other accountable to results and making sure you’re serving the people of Indiana.”