Niki Kelly: Is LEAP project stuck in neutral?

For two years, the state of Indiana has sat on thousands of acres of farmland in Boone County with no new announced tenants for a controversial innovation park.

Hoosiers should be concerned about the lack of progress given the $358.4 million spent on land so far. And that doesn’t count millions more in consulting and development contracts into which the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) has entered.

The state began acquiring land in late 2021. Then, in May 2022, the IEDC publicly revealed the Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace (LEAP) Research and Innovation project: a massive tech park with Eli Lilly & Co. as its first tenant.

Lilly initially planned to invest $2.1 billion into the project on 600 acres of land. But it increased that to more than $3.7 billion at the groundbreaking in April 2023.

The company again added to that investment a few weeks ago, for a total of $9 billion and 900 new jobs, still on its 600-acre LEAP lot.

Lilly last year quietly bought its 600 acres from the state — in two parcels — for $60 million. Erin Sweitzer, spokeswoman for the IEDC, said the state purchased the Lilly land at $81,000 an acre and sold it at $99,260 an acre.

“Cash received at time of sale was returned to the General Fund. Additionally, the improvements being made to the land we have purchased to date will increase the value of the land for future sale,” she said.

The IEDC has purchased 4,009 acres of land to date and has an additional 3,607 acres under contract, according to Sweitzer.

The progress on LEAP seems to have stalled because of one major issue: water.

While there is enough water to support the Lilly project, when the state started talking to major semiconductor companies it became clear they would need more water than Lebanon had to offer.

That’s when a plan was proposed — privately — to pipe up to 100 million gallons of water a day from the Wabash River in Tippecanoe County.

The plan leaked in a clumsy way and residents in Tippecanoe reacted negatively. IEDC commissioned a water study and initial results claimed there was enough water to support the diversion. But momentum was moving against it.

As a result, Gov. Eric Holcomb directed the Indiana Finance Authority to take over the study and widen it for a more comprehensive examination.

The IFA has retained Stantec Consulting Services, Inc. and Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc. Preliminary data from the study are anticipated to be released in late spring or summer of 2024 with final results in the fall.

If the water pipeline happens, the cost will be massive. Some have said upwards of $2 billion, though the state disputes that an estimate exists.

But in the meantime, Boone County is losing property tax revenue as thousands of acres of land have been removed from tax-paying rolls and sit idle. That’s because government-owned land is tax exempt.

The IEDC website boasts about the district’s future.

“Modeled after the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, in the heart of the Midwest in Indiana, the LEAP district will be a hub of global innovation and a key component of Indiana’s plan to attract and retain businesses that keep Indiana one of the top states in the nation in which to do business,” it says.

Some work is being done to prep the land with needed infrastructure but as far as adding tenants, the project seems stuck in neutral with state costs continuing to rise.

Niki Kelly is editor-in-chief of, where this commentary first appeared. She has covered Indiana politics and the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 for publications including the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Send comments to [email protected].