Co-workers become neighbors in Spencer housing development

Within a month, Donald Grocki graduated from college, landed a full-time job as a systems engineer with Cook Medical, and bought his first home in the Indiana Uplands. 

Grocki is one of the newest residents in the Texas Pike Place neighborhood in Owen County, the latest workforce housing project developed by Cook Group. The 99 single-family, owner-occupied homes along Texas Pike in Spencer are targeted for middle-income wage earners employed at Cook Medical and Cook Group companies. Cook Group is a global, family-owned group of businesses spanning medical devices, life sciences, services, property management, and resorts, according to its website.

Texas Pike Place is also one of seven housing projects to receive Regional Economic and Acceleration Development Initiative (READI) 1.0 funding in the Indiana Uplands. READI funds for the Texas Pike Place project have been used for water infrastructure: sanitary sewer extension, lift station, water main extension, and water storm construction.

Homes in this neighborhood are being built in phases. Fourteen homes were built in the first phase. Of those homes, 13 are already sold. Phase two includes 13 homes. Three are sold, and several are under contract. According to Ron Walker, president of Workforce Housing LLC, the company created within Cook Group to manage housing projects, the plan is to finish phase two before the spring of 2024. 

Cook Group operates medical manufacturing sites in three different locations in the Uplands: Bloomington, Ellettsville, and Spencer. 

Employees shared with Cook leaders the challenges they faced while finding places to live. Some employees were also driving long commutes to work each day because of the lack of workforce housing.

Cook looked at employee commuting patterns to determine where a workforce housing development could go in the region, particularly in Lawrence, Owen, and Greene counties. Building workforce housing would be a way to help prevent employee turnover while also allowing their employees to buy their own homes at a price they could afford, Walker said. 

“When you are at a low unemployment time, long commutes make you very susceptible to employees finding other places to work,” Walker said.

Walker is also president of CFC Properties, a Cook Group property management and development company. Walker said the sale of some CFC-managed residential and commercial properties also helped capitalize the Texas Pike Place project. 

“We thought if we build them and we try not to make money on them necessarily, but also not lose money either, we could ideally sell them at a price employees can afford,” he said. 

“When we sell a home, we take those proceeds, and keep feeding it into the project to build more.”

The goal is for three-bedroom homes to be sold for under $200,000 and four-bedroom homes for under $220,000, according to the project report. Walker said this project would not have been possible without READI 1.0 funding. 

“It is extremely difficult to build houses and keep them in the $200,000 range without help with the public infrastructure. The costs (of public infrastructure) become too much to keep the price affordable for working families,” he said.

“If we had to bear all that, we’d have to sell them at a huge loss or raise prices. It (READI funding) was a key part from the beginning.”

Seeing how Cook Group stepped up to provide solutions to employee challenges by building the Texas Pike Place neighborhood is inspiring, said Lisa Abbott, ROI’s Vice President of Economic and Community Development.

“Cook recognized an employee need and decided to take the necessary steps to help in a way that not only benefits their employees and their company but also this community and region,” she said.

“ROI is excited to be a part of the collaboration that was necessary for this project to become a  reality and, in the process, bringing about an innovative solution to an often-cited challenge in our region. This kind of project is what ROI was aiming  to support with READI 1.0 funding.”

Affordable home ownership

As the sun sets in the Texas Pike Place neighborhood, a young family plays outside as a woman walks her dog a street over. 

The neighborhood is made up of two main streets, with a smaller one connecting the two. Black mailboxes are at the end of concrete driveways that lead to a two-car garage. Each home has a covered porch and yards in the front and back.

The homes were built in a field not far from State Road 46. Grocki said he enjoys living “out in the open” and in Spencer.

“It seems a lot darker out there. It seems like a calm neighborhood. I love how I can see the stars every night. It’s a lot different than what I grew up in,” he said.

Grocki is originally from Michigan. He attended Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis his freshman year before transferring to complete his degree at the University of Toledo in Ohio. While in college, Grocki completed three semesters of co-ops, or cooperative education, at Cook Medical in Bloomington and Ellettsville. He accepted a full-time job with Cook in Bloomington in January.

While working as a student with Cook Medical, Grocki heard about the workforce housing project in Spencer. When returning for co-ops, Grocki would check on the project progress, and once he was hired full-time, he pursued purchasing a home in the neighborhood. 

“Being able to buy a home at a subsidized price is a great opportunity,” he said.

Texas Pike Place is not a new concept for Cook. Cook first built workforce housing in Orange County. Twelve homes have been built near French Lick and West Baden resorts, with plans to build more. Walker said Cook Group was looking for the next location of workforce housing in the region when they heard of the challenges Spencer employees faced.

“There are all these tools out there to help people buy homes, but they can’t use those tools if there are no homes. The one thing that was missing, we thought, was new homes in a price range people could afford,” Walker said.

Cook leaders intended to offer homes in the first phase to Cook employees first. Employees who wished to purchase a home entered their names into a lottery with their completed application.  The first person selected was able to have their pick of the first 14 homes. 

“Cook employees are our primary market. We want to help them secure housing,” Walker said.

Any homes left in the first phase were opened up to Spencer-Owen Community Schools employees and then listed on the Owen County Chamber website for Chamber members.

For phase two, homes are only open to Cook employees, with the possibility of opening up the applications to others in the future depending on the response, Walker said. 

Planning for phase three of construction is ongoing. This phase will include 21 homes and will start in 2024, Walker said.

Community collaboration key to completion

Marce King agrees the new neighborhood provides plenty of opportunities for first-time homebuyers. King is CEO of the Owen County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation.

“New homeowners have the opportunity to live their dream of owning their own home, being close to work, and raising their families in a community that continues to build quality of place,” she said.

“Sometimes it just takes an individual or an organization to break through a barrier and show what is possible. Cook’s bold move created that possibility.”

Before the housing development was built, increased housing construction was desperately needed to meet demand in Owen County, King said.

The 2024 Indiana Uplands Regional Housing Study showed that approximately 1,055 housing units need to be developed in Owen County by 2035.

“Cook workforce housing has opened the door for new housing developers,” King said.

Continuing to plan for the future, Owen County passed a comprehensive plan in 2023, and officials are now working on a new Unified Development Ordinance to support future growth. County officials also made access to the internet its No. 1 goal early in 2020 and created a plan for broadband connectivity. King said less than 25% of the county’s population still needs service, and the number decreases daily.

Walker said broadband was an important component of the development. Every home has fiber installed by electric provider South Central Indiana REMC. 

“(Fiber access) opened a door that Cook was bold enough to walk through: Building homes for their workforce,” King said.

“Someday, someone will look back at Owen County and ask, ‘What was the catalyst for Owen’s housing growth?” I believe they will be able to point to the tremendous work of the Cook workforce housing as that catalyst.”

One of the keys to Cook selecting Owen County as the newest location of workforce housing was that local government, the Chamber, and the Economic Development group had already been working to identify areas for new housing growth. King also credits collaborative work with the town and county along with community support for the success of Spencer’s newest workforce housing project.

“We approached the owners of a particular area that was already identified by the community and was suitable for housing,” Walker said. That area would later be transformed into Texas Pike Place.

“We thought, ‘We’re a private employer, we know we need housing. Maybe we can do this? But we can’t do it on our own.’ We needed county and town support,” Walker said, noting the Town of Spencer covered the cost of a lift station for sanitary sewer in the neighborhood.

Walker said Cook Group hopes other employers consider replicating their model of investing in new housing developments for employees. 

“It doesn’t have to be a money loser. It’s an investment in the community. For employers, it offers more housing close to the place of employment, and hopefully, that creates some loyalty, lowers turnover, and makes your community healthier,” he said.

“If you’re an employer, you want your community to be viable. We’re hoping others take note and will come up with similar plans. The main issue is a lack of housing that working people can afford. Cook knew we needed to help build housing inventory; we needed to build those units.”

For employees like Grocki, this opportunity has given them a place to call home while they pursue a career in the Uplands. Grocki made this neighborhood of modern-looking houses his home when he moved in January. Less than two months later, he said he loves being a homeowner and living in his new house.

“It’s much different than the apartment atmosphere,” he said.

“I love the space. This is the most land I’ve ever lived on. I’ve lived in the suburbs. I can’t believe how big the backyard is.”