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Giving New Life to Rural Indiana

This series provides insight about the economic and social issues affecting rural Indiana and highlights the public-private partnerships that are helping turn the tide. Check in each Tuesday for a new segment.

Rural Indiana has its challenges—and opportunities

By Keith Robinson

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.

Most 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)

Such 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," says Brigitte 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."

A Depleted Workforce

But 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.

"Young 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.

"And since they don't come, the young people are more willing to leave," Waldorf says.

It's 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 urban areas.

To 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

The 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 their being.

"Hopefully, this will help provide new insights on specific issues," says Janet Ayres, a Purdue Extension agricultural economics specialist whose work focuses on leadership and economic development in rural Indiana.

Ayres, 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.

"Local 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

Delphi, 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 pedestrians.

"It held us back from some of the things we wanted to do downtown," says Mayor 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 community."

Delphi Mayor Randy Strasser in Delphi opera house. 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)

The 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.)

Delphi's 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 other events.

The 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.

Ayres says local leaders wanting to initiate such development projects need broad-based support and involvement of the community.

"This 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.

Next Tuesday: Many Purdue Agriculture graduates return to their home communities to work, raise a family and volunteer in the community. Two families who chose this path have joined many generations of their ancestors to preserve rural Indiana as a viable place to work and live.