Quality of life key to future of state

Indiana is losing people faster than we are gaining them.

That’s the major problem tackled by a new project titled Thriving Communities, Thriving State, led by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.

The state shrank by 47,000 in population between 2010 and 2015. The only good news is that we look healthy compared to our neighbors. Population loss was far worse in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

Our population drain “tells us that quality of life is not what it could be. It tells employers that there might not be enough skilled labor to meet their needs. It tells us that the status quo simply won’t do,” says a report by the IU project.

The university gathered 53 people from all over the state, including Beth Bechdol of DeKalb County, to look for solutions.

They searched for ways to raise Hoosiers’ education levels, reduce poverty and increase jobs and incomes.

IU divided the study into three groups — urban, suburban and rural communities. But they came up with similar recommendations.

All three groups said Indiana’s top priorities should be:

Education and workforce preparation

Leadership and engagement

Quality of life and quality of place

Specifically for rural Indiana, the study set these main goals:

Ensure that students leaving high school are life-ready and can pursue postsecondary education without need for remediation. Designated “success coaches,” for example, can help students learn life skills and prepare for individualized postsecondary pursuits.

Build individual, organizational and civic leaders to develop community approaches and a civic vision to problem-solving, and generate funding.

Well-maintained physical assets and wired technology are vital to the success of rural and small towns.

The report contains dozens of recommendations — too many to mention here. We picked out of few that caught our attention, including the success coaches mentioned above.

The report calls for schools to achieve a better balance between preparing students for college and starting them on vocational and technical careers.

Access to a “high-quality post-high school” education should be within 20 minutes of every Hoosier, even if it’s only online. It proposes “start here” sites in local communities where students could take entry-level courses before transferring to a campus.

Speaking of online, the report suggests high-speed broadband service should be available everywhere in Indiana. Small communities may have to build some of their own infrastructure if for-profit businesses won’t provide access, the study says.

Small cities can make better use of underused or vacant downtown storefronts. Communities could encourage businesses to locate in vacant storefronts by helping them with the expenses of occupying an older building. Downtown buildings also could be used for educational functions.

Communities could provide places where new businesses can share offices and services.

“Quality of life” is the new buzzword across Indiana. It’s behind the state giving $42 million to northeast Indiana and two other regions to spend on features that make living here more enjoyable.

The new idea is that Indiana needs to be a place where people are smart — and where smart people want to live. Turning Indiana into that place won’t always be the lowest-cost path, but it might end up attracting more and better jobs.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.