As the workforce in rural Indiana communities ages and retires, economic sustainability becomes a huge challenge, according to a series of reports from Purdue University, looking at a variety of issues facing rural Indiana.
The research shows the aging rural population and the fact that many young people are leaving small towns for bigger cities is hurting rural areas.
Brigitte Waldorf is an agriculture economist at Purdue who studies population trends in Indiana and other areas with a large percentage of rural communities.
“They want to go to places where they have opportunities,” she says. “And often in these rural counties, there are no opportunities.”
But Waldorf says there are many ways rural communities can bounce back.
“What the rural counties need to do is find a niche,” she says. “Some place where they are better than other rural areas.”
And some Indiana rural communities are doing just that.
Take Greencastle, for example. Mayor Sue Murray recalls the early 1980s when the downtown area was thriving with retail businesses like clothing stores department stores.
“What happened to Greencastle in that interim is that IBM, who was the largest employers, closed their first facility in 1987 moved away,” Murray says. “So a good part of our white collar workforce moved away, and we were unable to sustain those businesses couldn’t sustain any longer.”
Murray says Greencastle learned to capitalize on some of the unique aspects of their town to revitalize their community– enough to be one of the first two communities selected as a “Stellar Community” in 2011.
“The vision that we had created for ourselves at that time was to create the next best college town,” Murray says. “So that was the goal, we’ve been working diligently, not just on capital projects, but trying to bring that sense of having education being at the forefront of our community.”
Carmen Lethig, Real Estate Production Manager for the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, says it’s important for rural communities to develop relationships across organizations, and that this process in unique in every town.
“Public, private, nonprofit, municipality relationships – everybody’s getting together and looking at the goals for the community and figuring out who can take a piece of all the work that needs to be done in order to get to that goal,” Lethig says.
The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority is also working on a statewide program to eliminate abandoned homes.
“When we develop the policy that we’re going to be able to implement first you have to take into consider the needs of Gary and Marion County,” Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority Executive Director Jacob Sipe says. “But you also have to develop a policy that you can implement in Greencastle, or Ellettsville.”
He says though it is challenging, it is imperative for state government to make policies that are flexible and apply to different types of communities.