Annual festival: One of Terre Haute’s annual entertainment attractions is the annual Banks of the Wabash Festival, seen here in 2020. The city saw its population decrease by nearly 4% between 2010 and 2020, dropping under 59,000 for just the second time since 1910. Tribune-Star file photo/Austen Leake
Annual festival: One of Terre Haute’s annual entertainment attractions is the annual Banks of the Wabash Festival, seen here in 2020. The city saw its population decrease by nearly 4% between 2010 and 2020, dropping under 59,000 for just the second time since 1910. Tribune-Star file photo/Austen Leake
For just the second time since 1910, the city of Terre Haute has fewer than 59,000 residents.

That’s a problem.

The community needs more families, with kids who will learn in the Vigo County School Corp. schools, graduate from high school and then from a college or technical program, get a job here, start their own families, pay taxes, volunteer and support local businesses.

Terre Haute needs more college graduates, folks with trades skills to move here to live. The city also needs more of its current residents to stay here, rather than moving elsewhere to live and work.

The 2020 census — the official, once-every-10-years population count — exposed those shortcomings. The U.S. Census Bureau released the population totals for the purpose of states redrawing their legislative districts this month. Those statistics include population counts for cities, counties and metropolitan areas. The previously reported counts showed declines since the 2010 census in the populations for Vigo County (down 1.6%) and the five-county Terre Haute metropolitan statistical area (down 2.1%).

The city experienced an even sharper decline, according to the Census Bureau. Terre Haute is home to 58,389 people, based on those findings. That’s 2,396 fewer residents than a decade ago, representing a 3.9% drop. Only one other decennial census in the past 110 years has shown Terre Haute with a population below 59,000 residents. That’s when the city’s population dwindled to 57,483. By 2010, it had ticked back up to 60,785.

A pivotal characteristic changed. The population’s natural increase — more births than deaths — has slowed. Natural increase used to happen at a pace that offset any “net outflow,” when more people move away than move in. Now, with a slower natural population increase, cities like Terre Haute need more move-ins than move-outs to grow.

“The issue is whether or not an area is able to attract new residents and retain the ones it has,” said Matt Kinghorn, senior demographer for the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Kinghorn calculated those trends following the Aug. 12 release of the census numbers.

Many Indiana cities accomplished that feat between 2010 and last year. Population grew statewide by 4.7%. All of Indiana’s metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) — large cities and their surrounding counties — gained population, except Terre Haute and Muncie. The 44 Indiana counties within a MSA grew a combined 6.3%.

But 49 individual counties lost population, and that includes Vigo, its four adjacent counties and several others in western Indiana. “That just seems to be one of the regions of the state that has been declining,” Kinghorn said Friday.

It’s not impossible for Terre Haute and its region to grow like Fort Wayne (up 7.6%), Columbus (7.1%), Lafayette (6.7%) or Jeffersonville (6.2%). Terre Haute has a combination of assets that should compete with those other places for residents and businesses, starting with the four local colleges, and the cultural and economic potential of the Wabash River front. Terre Haute can’t afford to slip farther behind other Hoosier communities.

“We’ve got to do something different from what we’ve been doing,” Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said Friday.

That sentiment isn’t new. He cited the See You in Terre Haute 2025 Community Plan, launched in 2019. The plan includes strategies for halting the population decline, as well as raising the per-capita incomes and educational attainment of residents. Bennett is encouraged by the plan’s potential, and other initiatives underway.

Two tools necessary to attract new residents are refreshing Terre Haute’s aging housing stock and building public amenities that make living here desirable, Bennett said. Indeed, Terre Haute’s housing stock is among the state’s oldest. Forty-three percent of houses in the city were built before 1939, according to another community plan — the Terre Haute and Vigo County Comprehensive Plan/Thrive 2025. An additional 26% of the city’s houses were built between 1940 and 1959.

Incentives like public-funded infrastructure to prospective subdivisions could help entice contractors to build more new homes, Bennett said, though he acknowledged that building materials prices also inhibit a builder’s chances to turn a profit. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also muddies the housing market.

The common mantra that Terre Haute needs more jobs to attract residents isn’t as relevant in 2021. “Our employers have jobs out there right now,” Bennett said. “When companies expand, it’s tough for them to fill those jobs. That’s why we need that [labor] pool to get bigger.”

Bennett questions the size of Terre Haute’s population deficit. He believes the Census Bureau calculations undercounted the city’s population, specifically the number of college students that live here. He intends to analyze the census totals further this fall.

The 2020 census counters faced obstacles, because of the pandemic and the shutdown of college campuses just as the count began. Terre Haute wasn’t unique, though. Census counters in other Indiana college towns experienced the same situation.

“One of our goals is to increase the population,” the fourth-term mayor said, “and that’s disappointing if [the census count] is accurate. But I don’t believe it is.”

Regardless, that number won’t change. The 2020 population total for Terre Haute — 58,389 — will determine its federal funding for schools, infrastructure, housing and public health for the next decade. The 2030 census is now nine years away, and its outcome will determine the level of those resources through 2040. That’s when babies conceived this year — a number that obviously isn’t increasing much these days — will graduate from high school.

The community’s actions in the next few years will determine whether those young people stay or go elsewhere.
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