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.
As a result, unemployment in the county (at 6.1 percent in August) is well below state and national rates. Incomes are significantly higher and the poverty rate substantially lower than the state averages.
Warsaw, with attractive parks, nearby lakes and a bustling downtown, also is a very livable community. That’s a key to attracting and attracting the skilled workers that growing companies need.
Not every small town, of course, has the benefit of being the center of an industry cluster that can weather economic downturns better than most. Revra DePuy founded the nation’s first orthopedics company in Warsaw in 1895. It gave rise decades later to Zimmer and then Biomet. Warsaw’s strengths have deep roots.
But there are lessons from Warsaw that can be adapted to other communities. Strong leadership in the government and private sectors, for example, is essential, not only to forge a realistic economic plan but also to create and sustain amenities that help retain residents. A strong emphasis on education is essential; Indiana’s workforce is only 42nd in the nation in education attainment, but those communities such as Warsaw that thrive tend to excel at training and keeping skilled employees.
On the state level, allowing communities the flexibility and freedom to make the decisions that are right for them is key. As a team of Ball State researchers noted in August in a report, “The Causes of State Differences in Per Capita Income,” state government needs to encourage “more comprehensive ‘place-based’ policies ... designed to attract and retain high-income households.” Unfortunately, the General Assembly in recent years has moved in the opposite direction, increasingly imposing restrictions that curtail the ability of local leaders to set their own courses.
For Indiana to thrive, more of its small towns and rural areas, traditional strengths of the state, must be reborn. State government can assist with that goal through policies that foster economic growth and encourage regional cooperation; and by providing infrastructure improvements that enhance mobility, education and recreation. But ultimately the leadership needed to drive small-town Indiana’s rebirth will have to come from the grass roots.
— Indianapolis Star
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