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Commentary: Why Some Indiana Small Towns Are Dying

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Spend enough time traveling rural Indiana, like I do, and you will notice some interesting trends. Some Indiana towns are thriving, while others are dying. Some have business districts with open and active stores, school buildings built within the last 10 years, and some kind of catchy slogan on a sign that welcomes you to the area and proclaims their pride. Other towns have more closed stores than open ones, school buildings built in the last century, and an overall dilapidated appearance. What is it that makes one town thrive and another disintegrate?

Is it location, infrastructure, cultural heritage, or just some kind of random luck? All of these play a role to some extent but, in my opinion, there is one factor that in large part determines the fate of a community — and that is attitude. The attitude of community leaders and of the majority of its residents will determine if a town thrives or dies.

For several years, I lived in a town that was beginning the slow and agonizing death spiral. For decades, a large papermill had employed most of the town and provided the tax base that kept things humming along. Then overnight the plant shut down. For the next 10 years, all anyone in town could talk about was how good it was when the mill was running. Sadly, this scenario has been repeated dozens of times across Indiana.

Fortunately, some communities have taken a different approach. They shook off the shackles of the past and took an honest look at what their town has to offer and what it could become. They have begun to think regionally. Instead of viewing the counties that surround them as rivals in basketball or competitors for jobs, they are combining resources and infrastructure to attract new types of industry to an area. Today these areas are growing in population and thriving economically. The difference is attitude.

A change in attitude does not come easily. The “we’ve never done it that way before” and “we don’t want those kind of people in town” attitudes are deeply intrenched. Yet, fostering change can literally be an economic life or death decision. There are state and federal programs that can provide money and other resources to help a community or region reinvent itself, but it all begins with attitude.

The agents of change can be farmers since many are already in leadership positions and are, for the most part, life long residents. But, an important element in the process of change is young people. As Katrina Hall, with Indiana Farm Bureau, recently told a rural summit, this is an issue for millennials who will be our leaders of tomorrow. They have a role to play in shaping the community they will inherit.

If you live in a rural community that is sliding into obscurity and you want to make a change, start by gathering a wide cross-section of folks, including those folks with whom you normally don’t associate. Then figure out where you want to go and start selling the vision to everyone else in town. Rural Indiana and all of rural America need more thriving, growing communities.

 

By Gary Truitt