If America’s heartland is “flyover country” then much of Indiana might be considered “drive through” country.
Just as many Americans see the Midwest only from 30,000 feet as they travel between the major metropolitan areas of the east and west coasts, growing numbers of Hoosiers may see rural Indiana only from interstate highways as they rush between the state’s major population centers. An increasing number of others watch their small home towns disappear in the rear view mirror and return only to visit parents and grandparents or for the occasional high school reunion.
While Indiana’s 72 rural counties are growing, their collective 3 percent population increase between 2001 and 2011 is less than half of the statewide growth rate of 6.8 percent and well below the more than 15 percent explosion in the Indianapolis metropolitan area, the state’s fastest growing region.
Perhaps more significantly, all of the growth in rural Indiana came among residents 45 and older. Every other age group saw declines, with the loss especially pronounced for those between 30 and 44 as young families moved to find jobs.
But a new Indiana State University initiative, the Rural-Urban Entrepreneurship Development Institute (RUEDI), is working to breathe new life into rural Indiana. Terre Haute has long been the economic capital of a largely rural 16-county region of west-central and southwestern Indiana and east-central and southeastern Illinois and Indiana State has long helped rural residents from the Wabash Valley and beyond secure a brighter future.
“More than half of our students come from rural Indiana and I think we need to provide them a place to return home,” said Steven Pontius, professor of geography and the institute’s director. “A strong Indiana depends upon our urban areas and our rural areas being strong.”
The institute is one of eight initiatives selected for funding as part of Indiana State’s five-year, $5 million Unbounded Possibilities program aimed at helping the university do more to address community and societal needs.
To support economic development efforts, RUEDI has established a data center to provide access to reliable and consistent data and has commissioned a survey of entrepreneurs, farmers and small business people in rural areas to assess community and business needs and challenges.
In addition to confirming population trends, information the data center has compiled shows Indiana’s rural counties exceed state and national averages of the number of people with high school diplomas and associate degrees but fall well short when it comes to other post-secondary degrees.
Manufacturing remains the largest employment sector in the state’s rural counties, with more than 188,000 jobs in 2011. Despite a 26 percent decline in production jobs during the past 10 years, about 7,000 manufacturing jobs are available in rural Indiana each year. Healthcare fields have added nearly 11,000 jobs in the state’s rural counties during the past decade, representing the fastest growing field. Business and financial operations was a distant second, adding 3,600 jobs.
The Indiana Rural Business Survey, which the Survey Research Lab in Indiana State’s psychology department conducted for RUEDI, found that most people who started or purchased businesses in rural areas did so because they lived there and not because of economic factors such as lower overhead expenses or the absence of competition.
“This finding particularly highlights the potential importance of entrepreneurship as a route to economic development in small towns and rural regions,” the survey team, led by Virgil Sheets, professor and chair of the psychology department, wrote in its final report.
RUEDI has launched the Wabash Valley Food Hub to help boost the economy of rural communities in west-central Indiana and is seeking to develop an artisan trail to raise awareness of local talent and the availability of locally-crafted products as well as to promote cultural tourism in the area. The institute is also developing plans to expose K-12 students to entrepreneurship and help them learn business skills, launch a new academic program at the university focused on rural entrepreneurship and identify and provide services rural businesses need to succeed.
“Our research has shown that there is a gap in the market for local foods in the Wabash Valley as well as a sizeable number of producers who want to expand their operations,” Pontius said.
Jason Saavedra of J3 Concepts, a consulting firm RUEDI hired to help launch the food hub, said the project is aimed at reducing as many barriers as possible and to allow the market to work more efficiently.
“Typically, it’s just not feasible for a buyer to deal with 30 or 40 local farmers to get the supply they need,” Saavedra said. “A food hub addresses this issue because, instead, the buyer can deal with one entity to get local produce, meats and other food products.
An advisory committee for the food hub includes a number of constituents in the local foods market, including Jim Luzar of the Purdue Extension office in Vigo County.
“I am looking forward to working with the food hub to support our local farmers,” Luzar said. “There are a number of resources that Purdue Extension can contribute to ensure that it succeeds.”
The idea for an artisan trail emerged during the initial formation of the food hub and RUEDI is partnering with Arts Illiana and its web developer, Anedix, to promote the trail, said Pontius.
“As RUEDI was gathering information, recruiting prospective members, identifying common needs and organizing members in activities that increase direct access to products, it was noted that local independent artisans in the area could benefit from similar activities,” he said.
RUEDI has agreed to provide funding for the Artisan Trail during its first two years. Indiana State students will provide technical support for the trail’s interactive website and the institute will work with faculty in the Scott College of Business and the university’s art department to encourage students to take advantage of real world experiences by planning and developing programs and events for the trail, Pontius said.
“The web site will allow visitors to create their own personalized trip planner to connect directly with artisan studios, galleries and local artisan foods, businesses and eclectic shops along the trail,” he said.
A survey of high school principals in 181 rural Indiana school districts underscored the need for entrepreneurship programs. One-half of educators responding to the survey indicated they are interested in new programs to develop future leaders and entrepreneurs. However, they cited such factors as lack of financial resources and staff availability as barriers to implementing such programming.
A “catch 22” often exists, Pontius said, in that when more programs are available, students seek more opportunities, “often in the urban centers outside Indiana. To combat the exodus of the rural youth, school districts need to involve their local civic and business leadership with programs to highlight rural opportunities and to engage prospective leaders of tomorrow with the leaders of today.”
RUEDI plans a follow-up survey of students concerning their plans after graduation and whether they feel their community has the career and personal satisfaction amenities to attract them back home. The institute will use information from the survey to help schools minimize barriers to implementing entrepreneurship programs by providing a clearinghouse of innovative programs, developing educational materials for teachers and creating a network of teacher and student mentors to promote entrepreneurship education and identify funding sources.
On the higher education front, a faculty committee that includes representatives from all five Indiana State colleges has been working since November to develop an entrepreneurship program with the goal of a certificate or minor to be offered beginning in fall 2014.
The institute has partnered with West-Central Indiana Economic Development District to launch the 21-member West-Central Indiana Leadership Platform, consisting of economic and workforce development professionals, educators and industry leaders. The platform will work to improve communication and “create awareness, understanding and trust” among community and economic development organizations in Vigo County and its five surrounding rural counties in Indiana, Pontius said.
“Partners will continue to operate as independent entities but the platform will assist them in thinking regionally when approaching solutions to common issues,” he said.
The leadership platform’s vision is that, by 2025, “West-Central Indiana will have a diverse, thriving economy of small, medium and large businesses that support a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship to attract and maintain a skilled talent pipeline.”
It’s an ambitious vision, especially given Indiana’s rank of 50th among the 50 states entrepreneurship, but the key to rural growth is more people starting their own businesses and collaboration can help make that happen, ensuring a strong future for all of Indiana, Pontius said.
“Students now attending rural high schools and who are now and will be attending Indiana State are the entrepreneurs of the future. We want them to return to rural Indiana because there are opportunities there and some of them may be the ones creating those opportunities,” he said. “If rural Indiana does not prosper, Indiana will not prosper. Metropolitan Indiana and non-metropolitan Indiana need each other.”
Dave Taylor is the director of media relations at Indiana State.