THINK RURAL

The name “Indiana” creates a vivid image in people’s minds.

Rolling farm fields. Basketball goals hanging above garage doors and on barn walls. Covered bridges. Small towns packing up and driving in a caravan to watch the local high school kids play at a cross-county rival.

Rural.

That’s the side of Indiana most of America knows.

Yet, as the Indiana General Assembly began its crucial 2015 session, rural communities hold a less prominent position — at least statistically — in the Hoosier lifestyle. The population of the state’s rural counties grew by 1.9 percent from 2000 to 2010, while urban counties grew by 9 percent, almost five times faster. In that same period, the number of rural residents living in poverty increased by 44 percent.

Those stark numbers were included in a series of reports released last year by researchers at Purdue University titled “Giving New Life to Rural Indiana.” Agriculture faculty members, Purdue Extension staffers and the school’s agriculture communications department compiled the study.

It noted the 21st-century realities of empty storefronts and the dwindling job base in small towns but also highlighted success stories in several cities and strategies to revitalize the quality of life in rural places.

Nearly 900,000 Hoosiers live in rural counties. As the Purdue series’ introduction put it, “There is a real danger their voices and interests may be lost in an increasingly urban-oriented Indiana.”

Those little communities — cities with populations under 10,000 tucked in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents — can help themselves by finding energetic leaders with a vision for the future. Towns also need commitment from the Statehouse to build and upgrade the non-sexy cornerstone of recovery and infrastructure — roads, sidewalks, trails, water lines and wastewater facilities.

The status quo isn’t enough. If young Hoosiers see deteriorating services, few job opportunities and rare activities in their hometowns, they’ll leave to raise families elsewhere, and the remaining, older population will continue to shrink.

Those scenes of barns, hoops and small-town gyms will be more commonly seen in history books, rather than real life.

Numerous initiatives throughout the state, private and public, target the invigoration of rural Indiana. The task isn’t inexpensive. Hoosiers statewide — those in big cities, affluent doughnut counties around Indianapolis, and small towns, alike — need to decide whether a vibrant rural-community lifestyle should stand as a high priority or simply fade away.

Rural counties cope with not only poverty but also difficulties attracting businesses and development, shortages of volunteers and food for the needy, and limited access to banks, health care, fresh produce and broadband Internet, according to the Purdue Extension series.

The General Assembly could bolster the small-town recovery by providing strong, new funding this year for infrastructure.

“The legislature gave us a shot in the arm last year. That was welcome, but it wasn’t the end-all, be-all,” said Matt Greller, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.

Lawmakers committed $400 million in additional funds for long-overdue road improvements, but only half that amount became immediately available. The remaining $200 million was put on hold until the December revenue forecast emerged, and last week Gov. Mike Pence called for those funds to be released as part of the “Major Moves 2020” program, pending a review by the State Budget Committee. More than $800 million has gone toward roads in Pence’s term. The state of infrastructure in Hoosier towns requires even more funding, Greller said.

Attention to quality-of-life amenities — as basic as roads and unique as an empty school converted into a community center — can give Hoosier 20-somethings a reason to return to their hometowns after college and raise families.

“And right now, that’s not happening in a lot of communities,” Greller said. “It’s happening in some, but the rural communities are having a harder time creating those kinds of amenities.”

Property-tax caps, etched into the state constitution in 2008, tightened small communities’ resources.

Many Hoosier towns turned to seeking grants, both state and federal, for projects. Delphi in Carroll County pursued funds and raised money for a package of projects totaling $18 million and ranging from rehabbing downtown homes to restoring a 19th-century opera house and creating a connection to the Hoosier Heartland Corridor Trail, according to the Purdue Extension’s series. In addition to grants, the city of Delphi put up $2.4 million, and the Delphi Preservation Society raised $1.5 million for the $4 million opera house renovation.

The state also picked Delphi as one of six towns in the Stellar Communities program, a multi-agency partnership to fund developments.

Purdue Extension also participates in the Hometown Collaborative Initiative program. In it, a small town invites an Extension team for a visit, and that crew helps locals define and develop plans. No rural town is a lost cause, said Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension.

“Every community has an asset to build upon,” Henderson said. That could be a good road or a popular festival, or one hidden from local view, such as an innovative startup business run from a home basement.

It takes a core of individuals willing to do the tireless legwork and believing in a project’s future value. “You show me strong leaders, and I’ll show you a strong community,” Henderson said.

On the plus side for small towns, most don’t have a lot of debt, and the cost of doing business is low, Henderson said. Those places are looked upon as good for raising families and getaways from faster-paced cities. He senses more optimism than during his boyhood days of the 1980s.

“The message today at the kitchen table is not the same as it was when I was growing up in a rural community,” he said.

Legislators should give rural towns tangible support to build on those positives.

Small-town stats
  • From 2000 to 2010, the population in Indiana’s urban counties grew by 9 percent, compared with just 1.9 percent in rural counties.
  • From 2000 to 2010, the number of rural Indiana residents living in poverty increased 44 percent.
  • 42 Indiana counties qualify as rural, with populations under 40,000 and their largest city’s population under 10,000.
  • 14 percent of the Hoosier residents (891,906 total) live in rural counties.

Source: Purdue Extension Service

Mark Bennett writes for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.