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October 15, 2013

THEIR VIEW: Building small town Indiana

As the longtime twin pillars of Indiana’s economy, manufacturing and agriculture, have shed jobs by the hundreds of thousands in recent decades, many small towns and cities have struggled to rebuild local economies, retain skilled workers and forge a new sense of purpose.

The desperation can be seen in high unemployment and poverty rates. In boarded-up businesses and crumbling houses. In a loss of hope among many Hoosiers in rural areas and small towns that things will get better anytime soon.

In Connersville, for example, in southeastern Indiana, annual per capita is more than $7,000 below Indiana’s average, which itself is well below the national norm. Nearly one-third of children in Fayette County (Connersville is the county seat) live in poverty. And the county unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above 10 percent for years.

On the other side of the state, along Indiana’s western border, unemployment topped 10 percent in Fountain, Sullivan, Vermillion and Vigo counties this summer.

But exceptions are sprinkled throughout the state that shine as examples of what Indiana’s smaller communities can become with the right leadership, resources and vision. Kokomo in north central Indiana and Ferdinand in the southern part of the state stand out as places where local leaders have stressed economic adaptability and community livability, and in doing so have achieved outstanding results.

Perhaps no place in Indiana is a better example than Warsaw of a small town with a big impact.

Only about 14,000 people call the Kosciusko County seat home. But the community’s role in the state’s economy is huge. Warsaw is home to companies such as Biomet, DePuy and Zimmer that help account for about one-third of the world’s orthopedic sales. Beyond the major companies, dozens of smaller firms in and around Warsaw are connected to the orthopedic industry, a sector that continues to grow as an aging population demands replacement knees and hips.

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