Indiana's first Statehouse in Corydon, INThe town of Corydon plans to build a Bicentennial Park this year to commemorate Indiana's Bicentennial in the state's first capital. Pictured is Indiana's first Statehouse. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

New Mindset for Rural Indiana

Purdue Center, Extension Helping to Build Stronger Communities

By Keith Robinson - Published May 12, 2016

Bo BeaulieuBo Beaulieu (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Rural communities needing a lift have at least three things going for them:

With Purdue Extension's local connections in Indiana's 92 counties, its expertise in economic and community development and the research work of the Purdue Center for Regional Development, the university is a powerhouse of resources for local leaders.

"Indiana is dotted throughout with many small cities and towns, and we at Purdue have the resources, strong ties with the counties and the commitment needed to help strengthen the long-term vitality of these communities," says Lionel J. "Bo" Beaulieu, director of PCRD and Extension's community development program leader.

Purdue Noted for Its Leadership

PCRD and Extension have played a leading role in the successful start of the state's Hometown Collaboration Initiative, designed to improve the economy and way of life of small communities. The initiative of the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs began in 2014 as a pilot in which six communities—each with a population of less than 25,000—were selected to receive help with community improvement projects. PCRD and Extension are partners in HCI along with Ball State University.

Geoff Schomacker, OCRA's deputy director, says Purdue was the right fit.

"When we needed a strong partner to take the lead in designing a program as intensive as what would become the Hometown Collaboration Initiative, the team at Purdue was ready and eager for the challenge," Schomacker says.

With PCRD, Purdue Extension and Ball State's Indiana Communities Institute, he says HCI "represents the best in collaboration between state government and universities in our efforts to provide communities with the world-class community economic development tools needed to compete in the 21st century."

Eva Bates North, Sean Davis, and Catherine Turcotte stand next to a parking lot and vacant lot with their printed plans to turn it into a park.Eva Bates North (left), Corydon town council president, Sean Davis, member of the hometown collaboration initiative and Catherine Turcotte, director of Main Street Corydon, hope to turn this parking lot and a vacant lot into a city park in Corydon, Indiana's first state capital. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Building More History

The town of Corydon, about 25 miles north of the Ohio River in southern Indiana's Harrison County, wanted to do something special for Indiana's bicentennial this year because Corydon was the state's first capital. (The first Statehouse is still there.) Local leaders had the idea of creating a Bicentennial Park. They applied to HCI, and the town's proposal was accepted.

A view of downtown CorydonA view of downtown Corydon, Indiana’s first state capital. The southern Indiana community is developing a park to commemorate Indiana’s bicentennial this year. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

The project itself is historic because it will result in the town's first municipal park. It will take up a full block, replacing what Catherine Turcotte, executive director of Main Street Corydon, describes as a poorly designed municipal parking lot, an abandoned laundromat and a place where a building burned about 10 years ago. The park is to open by Statehood Day—Dec. 11.

Turcotte says the organization applied to HCI for the opportunity to learn from leaders from Purdue, Ball State and OCRA about the importance of "placemaking"—creating a high-quality place for residents, businesses and visitors.

She says Purdue staff in Extension's Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces program made sure the project stayed on course by helping to organize community forums with elected officials, leaders of banks and nonprofit groups, pastors and others, and assisting in community surveys to analyze the community's assets. The program helps Indiana communities improve public spaces such as parks and town centers.

"The Purdue people have been here for the whole process, every meeting from the beginning," Turcotte says. "They helped us through the process, but we made our own decisions. It has been a wonderful experience for our community."

Some Purdue staff, Turcotte notes, drove more than three hours from the university's West Lafayette campus to attend meetings.

"They were so dedicated," she says.

For the Duration and Beyond

While many Extension specialists from the main campus routinely travel the state as part of their work, Purdue brings even more firepower to communities through its county and regional Extension educators.

"One thing we made clear when we started in HCI is that our commitment will not be short-term," Beaulieu says. "We will continue coaching local community development leaders; we have that on-the-ground presence, and we know we aren't going away."

Community leaders in southern Indiana's Perry County along the Ohio River also have felt that sense of commitment. Purdue staff helped them determine, through HCI, that what the county needed was to bring people together and also do a better job of marketing the community. They decided to develop a centralized website of the local development corporation, chamber of commerce, and convention and visitors bureau. It will enable not only residents but also visitors and potential businesses to find information about the county, including a calendar of events, in one place.

Erin Emerson, program manager of the Perry County Development Corp., credits the Purdue staff for "doing a great job of bringing a diverse group of people together to think about things in a way we had never thought of them before."

Beaulieu doesn't like to think of PCRD and Extension as working with local leaders only on "projects"; that is, endeavors that have a beginning and an end. It's much more than that.

"We're building a whole new mindset for the community—building capacity," he says. "We're equipping local leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to be major players in their community for the long term."

The Depth of PCRD's Work

Purdue University Center for Regional Development logo 

Some examples of projects the Purdue Center for Regional Development is undertaking:

  • Playing a key role in a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative called Stronger Economies Together by providing leadership to a state team overseeing efforts of two groups of Indiana counties developing regional approaches to growing businesses and creating jobs.
  • Working with the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue in a USDA program to develop a comprehensive database to test indicators that best reflect the military friendliness of local areas.
  • Partnering in a universitywide effort, funded by Lilly Endowment, to help accelerate Indiana's capacity to attract and expand high-technology jobs.
  • Developing data-driven tools to help civic leaders in Indiana and the Great Lakes region in a U.S. Economic Development Administration initiative to start programs that build on regional assets and opportunities for regional collaboration and innovation networks.
  • Co-leading a U.S. Defense Department program with Purdue's Manufacturing Extension Partnership to stabilize and strengthen defense-dependent communities and the defense manufacturing sector in Indiana, in partnership with the University of Michigan and Ohio State University, by expanding nondefense-related job opportunities.

Data, More Data—and Analysis

By Keith Robinson

data graphic showing bar charts and a microscope on grid paper 

The Purdue Center for Regional Development has mounds of U.S. census and other data on every county in the state to help local leaders better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their communities.

PCRD has data on population, racial composition, ages of residents, education, income, poverty, industries and occupations, and much more—pretty much anything they would need as they plan their community's future.

The center is putting such information in the hands of community development Purdue Extension county educators "so local leaders can see us as a go-to source for good data to guide their local decision-making," says Lionel "Bo" Beaulieu, director of the center.

In Perry County, along the Ohio River in southern Indiana, the center's data show that 35 percent of all businesses have one employee and 56 percent have 2-9.

"Economic drivers there are the small businesses," Beaulieu notes. "So the question is what are they doing as a community to help these businesses?"

If data for a community suggest that the number of young people is declining, as is the case in many rural communities, Beaulieu says local leaders might need a strategy to reverse that trend. Or having an older population could create opportunities to bring in specific health care services.

"There is an economic development positive to all of this."

But Beaulieu says local leaders also need to look beyond their county lines for regional trends in the data to help their communities.

"Economic development is not likely to rest solely within the community. Its economy is very much influenced by what is going on outside that community or county."