Rush County’s Readiness for Change Part 1: Background Data

Faced with a big grant opportunity that could transform our community, we weren’t quite sure where to even start. So we asked you. Last fall we took our questions on the road and visited seven Rush County communities. With guidance from Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute, we were determined to find out what you “like, love and want to love about our area”. Each session had 15-45 participants, but we knew you could do even better. We put out an online survey and 437 people responded.


We’re going to take a look at the data, findings and suggestions for moving forward as determined in the resulting Ball State report through a series of posts. (By all means, if you’re ready to skip ahead read the full report, you can find it here.) These points are taken directly from the ICI report and from a presentation by Ben Winchester, rural sociologist.


Let’s begin with some insight into our community through local data and national research. It’s been said that the only constant is change. How we decide to deal with change as a community will determine our future. It’s really important to keep the dialogue going, open and respectful.  It’s equally important to realize what’s happening in small communities is happening everywhere. Jobs are changing. Retail businesses and churches are closing. Schools are consolidating. We are microcosms of globalization. It’s just more apparent in our small communities.


But we are still here.


One of the biggest changes in our lifetimes has been in the job sector. Brian Blackford from Ball State shared some startling insights. “Manufacturing jobs have been stagnant or in decline since 1970, mostly due to automation (88%).” Surprisingly, 2018 was the most productive year in manufacturing in US history.


Jobs are now service-oriented and tied to the local economy. Schools and healthcare are some of the largest employers.


In the past economic development approaches worked to attract businesses. Today it is more important to attract people and focus on place. Simply put – jobs follow people, and people go where they want to live.


Population decline is a real challenge. By 2050, 59 Indiana Counties are projected to decline in population, including Rush County. If the trend continues, we will lose 300-611 citizens – that’s 10-30% of our population in the next 30 years. Since new businesses need employees, we need to address this concern and work to attract and keep people in our community. When trying to attract new residents, it’s important to help people envision lives, not just their jobs.


It’s true that young adults, ages 18-29, are leaving rural areas. The media would have us believe this is a “brain drain”. Of course, we want our youth to go to college and to further their world views. But it’s also true that once they reach their 30’s, they’re looking for great places to raise their families. The reality is that people ages 30-49 are migrating to rural areas. Rural communities are experiencing a “brain gain” with this sector of the population.


The reasons people choose to live in a certain place are very personal. Closeness to family and friends is an important consideration, but so are other factors.


Here are other factors that determine why someone chooses to live where they do:

  • Perceived quality of schools
  • Perceived affordability of housing (defined differently at different ages)
  • Outdoor recreation and amenities such as parks and trails
  • Small town sense of community and civic engagement
  • Proximity to cities that offer employment, entertainment and shopping
  • Simpler pace of life
  • Safety and security


We fit the bill on many of these points and can choose to control others. Our proximity to larger cities is certainly a plus, but we must identify and promote how Rush County adds value to the surrounding region.


We can start by changing the story we’re telling ourselves, potential new residents and our children. Let’s not look at what we’ve lost or what we lack. Let’s remember that no town is a one-stop-shop and look at what we DO have.


As a small community, our lifestyle is simpler and safer. Our schools are a shining asset. Many businesses have opened within the past five years, including several local ones. Our choices of amenities are growing – restaurants, the Princess Theater, new and improved parks and outdoor recreation opportunities.


Most of us can get to work within 30-60 minutes or even less. A wide variety of restaurants and retail shops are also within 30-60 minutes. We have many places to play within a two hour radius. As Ben Winchester says, “We’re not in the middle of nowhere. We’re in the middle of EVERYWHERE.” The region becomes a primary interest.


Other factors to consider are education and poverty rate. Rush County falls behind Indiana in education, with 15% of the population that does not have a high school diploma. An educated population impacts financial stability, workforce readiness and job attraction. Our poverty rate is 18%, which exceeds Indiana’s average of 15%.


As you can see, while flags have been raised, there is also a lot of hope. In our next post we’ll explore the feedback we received from you.

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