Rural Indiana has its challenges—and opportunities
Walking down Main Street in some rural Indiana towns often brings an empty feeling from seeing vacant storefronts that years ago sported mannequins modeling the latest dresses, sport coats and shoes for window shoppers. A restaurant was open from morning to night, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was a furniture store, perhaps a
jewelry store, a hardware store, a five-and-dime with a soda
fountain, a movie theater. Downtown was busy.
of those businesses are long gone now in many rural communities,
where a thriving downtown is but a memory, at least for those who
have been around long enough to know their town's glory days. For
the young, the sight of empty buildings is how it has always been.
Despite idyllic images of Small Town, USA, many small communities are struggling with numerous economic and social problems. Purdue University researchers and Extension specialists are shedding light on these problems to help local leaders and policymakers better tackle the many economic and quality-of-life issues in rural Indiana. (Video by Carlee Glassburn)
towns need new life. They are showing their age, not just in their
deteriorating buildings but also in the faces of the growing number
of the elderly as people live longer and the swelled ranks of the
baby-boom generation advance into their 60s and 70s.
"Aging in itself is not bad. We like it that people are getting older,"
Waldorf, a Purdue University agricultural economics professor who
conducts research into a variety of demographic topics, such as
population, employment, immigration, and rural and urban issues.
"Everybody wants to have that long life."
as a growing number of people retire, they leave a hole in the
workforce. The problem is exacerbated by young people who feel that
there is little reason for them to stay in their small town—they
have no prospect of a high-paying, professional job, no career there.
So they leave for opportunities elsewhere, often out of state,
creating an even bigger void in the local workforce.
people in rural areas want broad economic choices," Waldorf says.
"They want to explore the world, and they most certainly will have
more choices if they move to Los Angeles or Indianapolis or Chicago.
If they stay in rural Indiana, the choices are very limited."
The combination of older people retiring and younger people leaving is a
big disadvantage for small, rural communities trying to attract
businesses vital to economic development. If companies don't see a
workforce, they're likely to stay away.
since they don't come, the young people are more willing to leave,"
a cycle hard to reverse. Although there is economic development in
some rural areas, much of it is from urban areas such as Indianapolis
getting bigger—both in area and population—expanding outward in
the form of suburbs. Farms that once lined the rural landscape on the
outskirts of the city are now subdivisions and shopping centers as
Indiana becomes more "urbanized"—at least in regions that have
be sure, there are those who prefer to live in rural America for
reasons very close to them—heritage, family, traditional values,
the space, the farm, the peace, the quiet. Life there very much is
their life; they wouldn't have it any other way. Rural living still
is not hard to find for those seeking it; less than 14 percent of
Indiana's population of 6.48 million people live in the 42 most
rural counties, according to Purdue researchers who are producing a
series of publications reporting on issues facing rural Indiana.
Extension Examines the Issues
purpose of Purdue Extension's Rural
Indiana Issues series is to help state and local leaders better tackle the many
problems facing people in the most rural counties: poverty; lack of
community development; inability to attract business; school
closures; not enough volunteers to help staff food pantries and
provide other services to people in need; fewer banks; and limited
access to health care, healthy food and even broadband Internet
service, which young, urban dwellers consider almost essential to
this will help provide new insights on specific issues," says
Ayres, a Purdue Extension agricultural economics specialist whose
work focuses on leadership and economic development in rural Indiana.
who is overseeing the project that involves specialists and
researchers throughout Purdue's campus, says local leaders might
benefit the most from the information, spurring communitywide
discussion of issues and helping them to determine courses of action.
leaders need to delve more deeply into the trends in the community
and what it means for their future so that their communities can be
better prepared," Ayres says.
Planning for the Long Haul
the seat of Carroll
County in north-central Indiana, is one rural community that is
taking stock of itself and seizing opportunities where it finds them.
While the widening of state Route 25 in 2013 and its rerouting around
the city as part of the Hoosier
Heartland Highway has meant less traffic through downtown, local
leaders years ago saw that as a good thing coming, not a death knell
for their city. That is because much of the traffic was from heavy
trucks that caused congestion and posed safety hazards for
"It held us back from some of the things we wanted to do downtown,"
Randy Strasser. "The Heartland removes a lot of those trucks."
That has enabled local leaders to plan improvements and attractions
to make Delphi, as Strasser puts it, "a more walking-friendly
Delphi Mayor Randy Strasser stands in the once-opulent opera house in downtown Delphi. The 1800s-era venue is undergoing a $4 million renovation, with plans for it to become a community center. The opera house is among the town’s $18 million in redevelopment projects designed to entice visitors to stop in Delphi rather than drive through it. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
state has designated Delphi as one of six Stellar
Communities for its plans,
which include a new downtown streetscape, restoration of its
1800s-era opera house,
rehabilitation of homes in core downtown neighborhoods and a new
"gateway trail" connecting the Hoosier Heartland Corridor—a
route roughly from Lafayette to Fort Wayne and, ultimately, to
Toledo, Ohio—to the downtown, the Wabash
& Erie Canal, neighborhoods and other trails. The Indiana
Office of Community and Rural Affairs began the program in 2011 as a
way to help smaller communities with their development projects,
making them eligible for funding to bring them to reality. (Other
Stellar Communities to date are Bedford, Greencastle, North Vernon,
Princeton and Richmond.)
projects are expected to be completed in 2016 and cost $18 million.
That includes $2.4 million from the city and $1.5 million the Delphi
Preservation Society is contributing toward the $4 million
renovation of the opera house, which Strasser calls the linchpin of
the development initiative. Plans
are for the opera house to become a community center, with a stage
for plays and concerts, and to be a site for wedding receptions and
city envisions the projects leading to other long-term
improvements—new shops, loft apartments, restaurants with outdoor
dining—all bringing more visitors walking the downtown instead of
driving through it.
says local leaders wanting to initiate such development projects need
broad-based support and involvement of the community.
requires some planning and some organization and some leadership,
which is absolutely key," Ayres says. "And bringing the people
together to see those opportunities."
Rural Indiana Issues Publications
A sampling of Purdue Extension publications in the series, all available free of charge at Extension’s The Education Store, with each publication searchable by its number:
Defining Rural Indiana –The First Step (EC-766-W) explains that Purdue researchers analyzed U.S. census data at the county level to determine the most rural counties in Indiana. This differs from how researchers typically use census statistics; they analyze the information based on Metropolitan Statistical Areas, known as MSAs. An MSA, determined by the Office of Management and Budget, is a combination of a county that has a principal city with a population of at least 50,000 people and surrounding counties that have strong economic ties to that city. Researchers often define counties belonging to an MSA as urban and counties not belonging to an MSA as rural.
Fact: The OMB classifies Benton and Carroll counties as metropolitan even though they have very rural characteristics. That is because they are part of the Lafayette-West Lafayette MSA. Purdue researchers analyzed Benton and Carroll as rural counties.
Population Trends in Rural Indiana (EC-767-W) delves into drivers of population change and implications of the trends.
Fact: Although the population of rural Indiana grew by 1.9 percent between 2000 and 2010, urban counties grew by 9 percent, nearly five times faster. So the percentage of Indiana residents living in rural areas actually declined. A slower-growing population often implies dwindling economic and political power and poses numerous challenges, such as in attracting and retaining businesses.
The Role of Community Banks in Rural America (EC-768-W) reviews the transition from brick-and-mortar operations provided by community banks (or branches of large banks) to mobile and online banking.
Fact: The average branch size in deposits for urban Indiana counties is more than $48 million, compared with $32 million for rural counties. Consequently, it is difficult for a commercial bank or savings institution to justify operating a full-service branch in many rural counties when the size likely will be below what it needs to operate profitably.
The Aging of Indiana’s Rural Population (EC-769-W) explains the causes and consequences of an aging population.
Fact: Compared with the nation as a whole, aging is more pronounced in Indiana and especially in rural Indiana. Coupled with rising life expectancies today, the baby-boom generation will be responsible for a huge increase in the number of elderly residents in rural Indiana over the next two decades. This will lead to a need for more sources to increase the labor pool and more services for the elderly.
Poverty in Rural Indiana (EC-771-W) defines poverty, sketches a profile of poverty in Indiana before and after the recession of 2008, and suggests roles for community leaders to combat poverty.
Fact: Poverty became more widespread in rural Indiana in the first decade of the 21st century. It affected about one out of every12 residents in 2000 and nearly one in eight in 2010. The number of rural residents living in poverty increased by 44 percent during that time. The authors say leaders must look for ways to reduce or compensate for limited access to programs intended to help those in need. Limitations include poor access to transportation and broadband services, long distances to support operations such as food distribution centers and government and nongovernment agencies, and fewer job opportunities.
Unemployment Trends in Rural Indiana (EC-772-W) provides a snapshot of recent unemployment trends and highlights some implications for leaders.
Fact: At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, rural counties experienced greater peak unemployment than did urban areas. Certain age groups suffered greater unemployment in rural parts of the state, including the 20-24 segment, a group likely to include recent college graduates. The authors say high unemployment has important consequences for income, savings and business retention and could induce rural residents to move away, creating even more economic challenges.
Food Insecurity in Rural Indiana (EC-773-W) focuses on the lack of access to enough food for a healthy, active life and addresses what local communities can do about the problem.
Fact: In 2011, 16.3 percent—slightly more than 1 million people—of Indiana’s total population was food insecure. While food insecurity appears to be less prevalent in rural communities than in urban areas, those facing it in rural counties often are confronted with the added difficulty of decreased access to the programs designed to help them. The authors suggest that leaders determine the need for food aid in their community, the quality of food there and how to make food available to those who might have limited access to it.