Rural America continues to be a vital part of the nation. Over the past three years, the state of Indiana, recognizing the value of rural areas, has heavily invested in the revitalization of its smaller rural cities and towns, on the premise that economically stable and thriving agricultural communities remain a crucial building block for a well-functioning state and regional economy. These investments in downtown commercial revitalization, owner-occupied and mixed-income housing, transportation, and other infra- structure have helped to alleviate rural decline and spark a renewed interest and mobilization of resources towards community-building and improvement throughout the state of Indiana.
Evidence of the ebbs and flows in rural development in the United States can be observed from shifts in population and economic progression over more than the past five decades. These changes, partly a reflection of public policies and technological advances in the decades post-World War II, have helped to relieve constraints on agricultural growth and have improved conditions of life in rural areas. During the 1960’s, the expansion in rural development occurred as mass-production companies, seeking cheaper land and labor for their factories, moved their facilities (and many of their jobs) from urban to rural areas. The tables turned for rural areas in the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s as rural growth began to slow down and rural areas struggled due to the back-to-back recessions of 1980, 1982, and 1990. This phenomenon resembled similar occurrences in rural areas throughout the nation, including the Midwest and Indiana. Between 1980 and 1990, rural areas experienced high levels of unemployment, resulting in significant out-migration of people attracted to economic, social, and intellectual opportunities beyond rural boundaries that metropolitan areas offered. Yet the economic boom of the 1990s offered a turnaround for rural areas with an extended period of economic prosperity. The “rural rebound” of the 1990’s and early 2000’s continued as retirees, blue-collar workers, lone- eagle professionals, and disenchanted city-dwellers began to migrate from larger densely settled areas to lightly populated rural cities and towns. However, rural areas saw another downturn with the Great Recession.
The Great Recession—which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009—began with the bursting of an $8 trillion housing bubble. The economic recession and housing crisis along with technological advances have impacted rural development. During the past decade, the rural Midwest, vibrant for many years, suffered from characteristics of rural decline (i.e., loss of its employment base and household incomes, an increase in families living below the poverty line, and depopulation) brought on by technological and other changes in the economy. For instance, the increasingly mechanized agriculture jobs and other employment options were not there to attract or retain residents. Specifically related to Indiana, rural areas overall have not experienced significant depopulation over the past three decades; however, these areas have shown signs of negative shifts in median household incomes (-9.8%) and poverty rates (+47.5) (see figure below).
Despite the adverse effect of population and economic trends in rural America, opportunities exist for economic revitalization. By providing unified state resources to stimulate local economic activity and promote sustainability, the state of Indiana has moved towards implementing a collaborative and comprehensive approach to combatting issues related to rural decline. This is the first in a series of reports on the progress, issues, and impacts of the Indiana Stellar Communities Program (ISCP). It focuses specifically on describing program goals, planning, and implementation in the first ten communities designated as “Stellar” between 2011 and 2016. In doing so it briefly highlights program creation, process, and findings (e.g., successes, challenges, and lessons learned) (to date), while providing an assessment of current economic and social impacts of the program. Future reports will continue this assessment.