Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch responds to a question during the Rush County roundtable. David Terrell, director of Indiana Communities Institute at BSU is at left. Travis Weik / C-T photo
Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch responds to a question during the Rush County roundtable. David Terrell, director of Indiana Communities Institute at BSU is at left. Travis Weik / C-T photo
The Statehouse wants Indiana’s rural communities to thrive in the post-Covid world.

Rush County, in the heart of East Central Indiana, is one of the counties poised to grow in the next few years, according to the new report “The State of the Rural Economy in Indiana” from Ball State University.

Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch hosted a roundtable in Rushville on Sept. 22 to talk about how the county was impacted after being named a Stellar Community in 2016 and how their progress is impacting the region.

Rushville Mayor Mike Pavey said the Stellar win was less about the money and more about the confidence that title gave the community.

Crouch met with Rushville and Rush County leaders in the Rushville City Hall, itself a Stellar Community project. The lieutenant governor was joined by Denny Spinner, executive director of the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), and David Terrell, director of Indiana Communities Institute at BSU. Terrell is also the first executive director of OCRA.

Terrell explained to the gathered officials that rural Indiana is the state’s next greatest opportunity. Even as larger metropolitan areas have lost population, rural community populations have remained relatively constant, he said.

The Ball State report pointed out the continued importance of manufacturing in rural Indiana. Terrell said the jobs are shifting, though. More automation means higher productivity in factories, with an emphasis on a more skilled and educated workforce.

The employment landscape parallels the educational one.

“When people look to more into communities and stay in communities, they look at school quality, K-12 school quality,” Terrell said.

He also talked about how “jobs follow people” and that people are attracted to quality-of-life improvements.

On the topic of job attraction, Terrell said it is not wise for rural communities to put all their eggs in one basket by focusing on just one large employer or one sector of industry.

“That just does not work. Overall, for the long term, that does not work,” he said.

Terrell also talked about incentives, like tax abatements, that economic developers use to bring in new companies or keep current employers. He suggested changing those incentives by getting new projects to invest in local schools or community quality-of-life investments.

He used Muncie, for example, to show how city government could invest in local 21st Century Scholar students.

“Those are just as important as ‘skin in the game’ or probably more important,” Terrell said.

He encouraged rural communities to make sure they have a long-term vision of what they want and for local governments and communities to partner together.

“Regional collaboration is important because you’re sharing resources. Planning is important because of that. You’re able to leverage resources,” Terrell said, emphasizing the way Rush County and Rushville governments have worked together over the years.

Brian Sheehan, with the City of Rushville, said once the partnerships started, the relationships can stay strong.

Spinner talked about how OCRA is looking at the Stellar Community program and trying to figure out how it can better serve Indiana communities.

The next version of Stellar, Spinner said, will focus on quality of life and connectivity.

He said the next Stellar round will by a hybrid that allows both single communities and regional projects to apply for the OCRA funding.

State Senator Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) was also at the Rushville roundtable. Leising said she got there late because she was stuck behind semi-traffic on State Road 3, which connects Interstate 70 to Interstate 74 through Rush County.

Leising told Lt. Gov. Crouch that it could help improve quality of life in Rushville itself if there was a better way to route heavy truck traffic around the city.

Representatives from Rushville Main Street echoed Sen. Leising’s comments.

John McCane of Rush County Economic and Community Development Corp. said the large truck traffic will only get worse after the new Diamond Pet Food distribution center opens on the north side of town.

McCane said housing also has to be a part of the conversation. In Rushville, the city government is looking at ways to develop more affordable higher-end housing options, rather than low-income, subsidized housing.

Leising pointed out that rural healthcare is another important part of quality-of-life in East Central Indiana.

“We certainly have challenges,” Crouch said. “ But I don’t look at them as challenges, I look at them as opportunities.”
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