Indiana desperately needs Regional Cities Initiative

It is late in the Indiana legislative session, and the most innovative and important policy has not yet passed. It addresses one of the most persistent and frankly difficult challenges in Indiana — the uneven growth of regions. This leads us to the Regional Cities Initiative and why it is important.

A traveler to Indiana could walk from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan or from Illinois to Ohio without ever stepping foot in a county with a growing economy.

Despite our state having done well in the post-recession period, 80 of our 92 counties suffer an economy and population that are in relative or absolute decline. Thirty of these are shrinking fast. The only pockets of long-term growth are in our regional cities; and in precious few of these. The Regional Cities Initiative is an antidote to this decline.

A century ago Indiana had great cities; many of them bustled with vibrant energy well through the 1960s. Since then, they have all suffered mightily. This is especially damaging because Indiana is a compact state with the entirety of our population living within urban labor markets.

The decline of our regional cities has, in turn, led to the decline of smaller towns and rural areas. It is a vicious and saddening cycle that needs to be interrupted. That is what the Regional Cities Initiative addresses.

The decline of Hoosier cities is a complex matter, but it does have a rough history. From pioneer days through early industrialization until the postwar expansion, city leaders focused on the essentials.

These were the things that lured residents to live and shop in cities — clean and safe streets, attractive neighborhoods and good schools. By the 1950s the fabulous success of Hoosier cities made Indiana among the more prosperous states in the country.

By the 1960s, many places changed their strategy, taking their eyes off the prize and letting cities and towns crumble. They instead pursued the failed belief that prosperity was just one more economic development deal away.

Hoosiers need to get back to basics, rebuild their cities and allow the prosperity to spread broadly if we are to be a relevant place in the 21st century. The Regional Cities Initiative is the first of many steps Indiana will have to take to restore broad prosperity.

On its face, the Regional Cities Initiative, which is House Bill 1403, proposes to spend $84 million over two years to lure local and private investment to Indiana cities.

But, unlike many earlier attempts, this is not just some new government program. If it were, I would not support it. This initiative really fosters a cultural change in leadership of Hoosier cities.

The Regional Cities Initiative asks cities to go through an in-depth process to identify those things that matter most to residents and how to fund them. This is what city leaders did in the century after the Civil War. It is what we need to once again do to secure prosperity in Indiana for the 21st century.

Michael Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to