Indiana Uplands Innovation Award winners recognized at ROI’s 2023 Annual Report to the Region

ROI is proud to announce the 2023 winners of the Indiana Uplands Regional Innovation Awards.

The Indiana Uplands Regional Innovation Awards recognize deserving people, organizations, and projects that have made meaningful improvements to education, workforce, economic development, and quality of place within the 11 counties of the Uplands region (Brown, Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, and Washington counties). This year’s nine award winners were announced at ROI’s 2023 Annual Report to the Region held at French Lick Resort on Thursday, April 13.

“This year’s award honorees have demonstrated leadership and an unwavering commitment to making a difference in the lives of Uplanders,” said ROI President and CEO Tina Peterson.  “Recognizing these incredible organizations and individuals is a remarkable honor.”

  • Becky Skillman Regional Leadership Award: Steve Ferguson
  • Collaboration Award: Daviess Advances Recovery Access Consortium
  • Employer Innovation Award: JSI
  • Quality of Place Attraction Award: City of Jasper & Thyen-Clark Cultural Center
  • Quality of Place Innovation Award: Possibilities in Paoli
  • STEM Innovation Award (tie):  Richland Bean Blossom Community School Corporation
  • STEM Innovation Award (tie): Shoals Jug Rox Robotix Program
  • Talent Innovation Award: SAIC

In addition to the eight Regional Innovation Awards presented at the event, ROI recognized the Indiana Uplands Community on the Rise: Washington, IN.

“Our region on the rise is home to 48 cities and towns, all of them playing a key role in growing potential and possibilities in our 11-county region,” Peterson said.

“Washington is a community in a county that is doing all it can to make the Indiana Uplands an attractive place to live, work, and play.”

To illustrate how Washington is a “Community on the Rise,” a 5-minute video was shown at the event that highlights examples of the city’s economic and housing growth, school innovations, STEM programming, and emerging parks and quality of place amenities.

Peterson added that recognizing “communities on the rise” would be a recurring feature at future ROI Annual Reports to the Region.

2023 Indiana Upland Regional Award Winner Descriptions

The Becky Skillman Regional Leadership Award recognizes an individual or organization that has shown uncommon dedication to bringing the Indiana Uplands region together in pursuit of regional success and prosperity.

For almost 60 years, Steve Ferguson has exemplified and personified both the spirit and intent of this Leadership Award, named in honor of Uplands native Becky Skillman, Indiana’s 49th Lieutenant Governor and an unabashed advocate and enthusiast for the Uplands region.

Following an undergraduate degree from Wabash College in 1963 and a law degree, with distinction, from the Indiana University School of Law in 1966, Steve Ferguson began his career as an attorney in Bloomington and immediately showed a passion for improving both quality of life and quality of opportunity for the community, the state of Indiana, and especially the people of the Indiana Uplands. 

Early in his career, he had the good fortune to meet Bill and Gayle Cook. 

For decades, they worked closely together, building the Cook organization into a world-class medical technology company while also investing in the communities that they and the Cook extended family call home. 

From the extensive redevelopment of downtown Bloomington and many historic and underinvested properties throughout southern Indiana to the crown jewel, the French Lick Resort in Orange County, Steve has long been driving restoration and sustaining the places that make the Indiana Uplands unique.

In fact, the Indiana Uplands map is dotted with projects that have Steve’s fingerprints all over them. To name a few: the rebuilding of the old Springville Gym in Lawrence County; the planting of trees across the Uplands region; developing workforce housing in Orange and Owen counties; and championing reading and literacy.

Steve leads by taking bold action and inspires others to do the same. 

Steve served four terms in the Indiana House of Representatives, was President of the board of trustees of IU, and has participated in numerous state and national programs and organizations of significance.  

Today, Steve serves as Chairman of the Board of Cook Group Incorporated, the parent entity of companies worldwide involved in the research, development, manufacturing, and sale of medical devices. In this role and others, Steve’s impact extends across the state, the nation, and the globe.

However, Steve’s heart has always been in the Indiana Uplands region, where he raises Hereford cattle on his Lawrence County farm, which has been in the Ferguson family for over 200 years. 

His passion for this beautiful region comes naturally. Steve is one of the reasons today the Indiana Uplands is called a Region on the Rise.

The Collaboration Award recognizes two or more organizations that have worked collaboratively to advance prosperity for residents of the Uplands region through education, economic, or quality of place efforts.

The Daviess Advances Recovery Access Consortium began in 2019 when an association of community organizations and a regional higher education institution came together to conduct a community health needs assessment.

The assessment identified issues and outlined goals surrounding mental health and substance use in Daviess County, a problem that unfortunately challenges communities across our region, state, and nation. Knowing it takes a village to address the complexities of substance use disorder and mental health, the Daviess Advances Recovery Access Consortium was formed. 

Members of the consortium include a long list of partners, including:

  • REAL Recovery
  • DRPERK/Serenity House
  • Central Christian Church (Recovery Central)
  • United Way of Daviess County
  • Daviess County Connections
  •  Purdue Extension – Daviess County
  • Daviess County Economic Development Corporation
  • Mental Health Association of Indiana
  • Indiana Department of Health
  • Daviess County Hospital
  • Good Samaritan Hospital
  • PACE Community Action Agency
  • Daviess County Community Corrections
  • St. Vincent – Evansville-Ascension Health
  • Indiana University

Recently, the consortium brought together the resources of REAL Recovery and Daviess County Peer-to-Peer, two organizations that focus on substance use recovery. The two organizations will co-locate in a soon-to-be purchased property in Washington, Indiana, that will serve as the Daviess County Recovery Resource Center.  The center’s mission will be dedicated to simplifying the process for those in need of assistance by providing one, central location with the information and connections needed to respond to substance use, mental health, and behavioral health issues in a culturally appropriate, confidential, and non-stigmatizing manner. 

The Diversity Innovation Award honors individuals or organizations that have implemented innovative strategies for attracting and/or retaining diversity in the regional workforce.

The Bedford Chapter of the General Motors African Ancestry Network is one of GM’s many ERGs, employee resource groups, found in plants across the United States. The goal of the Bedford Chapter is to attract, retain, and develop employees with African ancestry at the plant, a strategic priority of both GM and the Bedford Plant.

Quality Manager Jason Kelley began working at the Bedford plant at the end of 2021 and quickly assumed leadership of the Bedford chapter.

The local network has a specific mission to grow diversity in talent acquisition. The chapter itself is diverse, with 15 members recruited by Kelley. New members are invited to join based on their skills and what they offer to the network, regardless of race or nationality. The team has worked to expand its mission to include college students with a goal of getting them interested in the die-casting business before they graduate and join the workforce.

The chapter works with Indiana University students, including the National Society of Black Engineers IU Chapter, to foster positive relationships with college students and provide professional development through foundry and campus visits.

The award recognizes the GM African Ancestry Network Bedford Chapter’s successful efforts in creating a more inclusive work environment.

The Employer Innovation Award recognizes an Indiana Uplands employer who seeks creative solutions to talent and workforce development challenges, supports the success of regional key sectors, and exemplifies meaningful partnerships with K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions, and/or other employers.

JSI, a division of Jasper Group, is an industry partner that has gone above and beyond in its commitment to developing meaningful, high-quality, work-based learning. Working closely with its neighbor, Orleans Junior/Senior High School, this employer has partnered with the school to grow the next generation of manufacturing talent collaboratively. What started as a simple conversation has evolved into a robust strategy.

The strategy, implemented this school year, begins with a corporate product showroom tour for students followed by six weeklong on-site learning cycles, a product design challenge, and a summer immersion project. JSI is also championing a county-wide Manufacturing Day in Orange County.

This employer is setting an example for others as they creatively design talent solutions and, in the process, blur the lines between K-12, postsecondary, and the workforce.

The Quality of Place Attraction Award recognizes a community, organization, or group that has coalesced around a project or program that welcomes both residents and visitors to enjoy the arts, culture, and natural beauty found only in the Uplands.

The inaugural award was presented jointly to the City of Jasper and the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center – both responsible for creating the amenities and linkages that bring people downtown.

It was in 2013 when the community began to focus on bringing people back to their downtown. It was arduous work that required planning, partnerships, and investment to create a downtown that residents would want to rediscover and visitors to explore. 

Today, a redeveloped Downtown Jasper is a place where everyone wants to be. People can dine and shop downtown, spend time with friends around a fire pit on cooler evenings, or swing in front of City Hall on warmer nights. You can catch a show or an art exhibit at the nearby cultural center or watch a movie in a renovated historic theater. And if you want to exercise, you can power walk or ramble down the 2.1-mile scenic, paved walking path along the river.

The Thyen-Clark Cultural Center is the epicenter of cultural enrichment in downtown Jasper. Developed as a partnership between Jasper Community Arts and the Jasper Public Library, this new 63,000-square-foot facility features three galleries, four workshops, a black box theater, meeting rooms, a maker space, and private study rooms. Its large atrium serves as the venue for many community events and has become a very popular wedding reception venue. The Center has also expanded its reach beyond its walls to include, for example, the community Farmer’s Market and activities at the historic Alexander Schoolhouse. 

The City of Jasper implemented an updated plan for downtown with the goal of creating vibrancy through more than just gathering places. Today, new businesses are taking up residence downtown, and new housing has been added to the mix. The recently completed Stewart Hotel project added 18 units, including several units for short-term stays. The completed River Center offers 76 market-rate apartments, and the former library block is under construction and will add 18 townhomes to the downtown housing inventory. This work took years of preparation, planning, and substantial public and private investment.

The Quality of Place Innovation Award recognizes projects and meaningful community improvements that enhance the Indiana Uplands as an inventive, industrious, and friendly place to live, work, and play.

Possibilities in Paoli was recognized for addressing several challenges facing Uplands communities: housing and the need for skilled building trades professionals. 

In response to these challenges, Paoli created a task force to explore strategies for growing the housing inventory in the community.

The task force identified a buildable lot with an amazing view of the downtown Paoli Courthouse. With a site secured, the task force began to work with Jon Racek from the Indiana University Eskenazi School of Art and Architectural Design to create the plans for an energy-efficient home that could be replicable. The Lost River Career Cooperative class at Paoli High School came on board to construct the home with the support of several local businesses. 

The home’s design features include energy-efficient exterior walls, a passive solar design, LP SmartSide siding, and an energy recovery ventilator.

The project has been a win for Paoli and the building trades students who gained skills in state-of-the-art home construction. The project brought the community together to solve a real-world problem. It resulted in a beautiful and sustainable home for a Paoli resident and the opportunity to train the next generation of homebuilders. Work is already underway on the second home.

The STEM Innovation Award recognizes a program or organization that has made meaningful and novel contributions to STEM education or training in the Indiana Uplands.

This year, two recipients were awarded the STEM Innovation Award.

The first recipient, Richland Bean Blossom Community School Corporation, has long been committed to STEM education in the school district. Through two elementary makerspaces, media production studios, a digital fabrication lab, and an Innovative Learning Center, all students can access digital fabrication and media production tools within flexible and inviting lab spaces.

In these spaces, students build, design, and create content in response to authentic needs in their community. They are also developing critical thinking, compassion, resilience, communication, collaboration, and an innovative mindset.

This holistic approach to STEM is redefining how and why students learn at Edgewood Schools, and community partnerships are an important part of the strategy. Students build relationships with community and industry partners through projects and authentic mentorship.

The second 2023 STEM Innovation Award recipient, the Shoals Jug Rox Robotix Program, has shown unwavering dedication to STEM Innovation in the Uplands region. “Small and rural” is not unique to our Indiana Uplands region, and this program has shown that small is mighty. The Robotix Program is putting the region on the national map and is highlighting some of the best young Uplands talent.

This year, the program made history. The middle school Rox Stars team, consisting of ten students in grades five through seven, advanced to the state championship in Indianapolis. All the hard work paid off, and the team placed in the top five.

They are moving on to nationals in New Jersey at the Liberty Science Center in May. In addition, the high school team recently competed at the state championship held in Lafayette and came out with a win – advancing to the world championships in Houston, Texas.

The Talent Innovation Award recognizes an entity that has designed and deployed an innovative strategy for improving our regional workforce through training, skill advancement, or the attraction of talent to the Indiana Uplands.

SAIC is a premier Fortune 500 technology integrator with deep mission expertise. SAIC helps to modernize, integrate, and train across all domains: sea, land, air, space, and cyber. Its global footprint includes multiple facilities in the Indiana Uplands.

SAIC has exhibited its commitment to developing the next generation of national security and defense talent through UpSkill youth apprenticeships. SAIC’s participation in ROI’s UpSkill Work and Learn initiative is possible because of the close relationships developed with the North Lawrence Career Center and the Collaboration of Shoals, Mitchell, and Orleans Schools (affectionately known as COSMOS).

Through this partnership, SAIC is connecting high school students with authentic job experiences that allow them to learn first-hand about careers in engineering, business, logistics, and other technical pathways within the defense industry. SAIC’s UpSkill students learn directly from technically trained employees and receive mentorship from professional engineers. Through these experiences, students are gaining the knowledge and confidence necessary to explore post-secondary pathways, like engineering, that they might not have considered prior to becoming a part of the SAIC family. Today, SAIC employs six youth apprentices at its Bedford location and has paved the way for other regional defense contractors to consider doing the same.

About Regional Opportunity Initiatives, Inc.:

The mission of Regional Opportunity Initiatives (ROI) is to advance economic and community prosperity in the 11 counties of the Indiana Uplands (Brown, Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, and Washington counties). ROI is growing potential and possibility in the Uplands through a focus on advanced industry sectors, regionalism, transformative school and workforce redesign, and placemaking strategies. More information can be found at