Fewer babies: The Terre Haute metropolitan area — which includes Vigo, Clay, Sullivan and Vermillion counties — has seen its birth rate decline more sharply than declines in the rates of the state and a combination of other Hoosier metros. Courtesy Indiana Business Review
Fewer babies: The Terre Haute metropolitan area — which includes Vigo, Clay, Sullivan and Vermillion counties — has seen its birth rate decline more sharply than declines in the rates of the state and a combination of other Hoosier metros. Courtesy Indiana Business Review
A path to better days exists. The tricky part is making sure that’s the road you’re on.

Winter’s final stage is a traditional season for looking ahead to the rest of the year — life after the thaw. Those outlooks include economic forecasts.

Terre Haute economists Robert Guell of Indiana State University and Kevin Christ of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology compiled their annual “Terre Haute Forecast 2022” for the Indiana Business Review earlier this winter, but the analysis provides a clear-eyed perspective of the realities and possibilities as spring nears.

In a nutshell, the two veteran professors believe Terre Haute’s route to prosperity runs through an influx of workers; modern, 21st-century-equipped local schools; a rebound of Indiana State University’s falling enrollment; the viability of the manufacturing and healthcare sectors; and providing quality-of-life amenities that appeal to the young people needed to work those jobs and send their kids to Vigo County’s K-through-12 schools and colleges.

Those developments would be the “drivers of rejuvenation,” Guell and Christ wrote in their forecast.

The economists emphasize they possess no “magic elixir” for the community’s economic success. They do, though, suspect the ingredients go beyond the new downtown convention center, set to open in April, and the upcoming Churchill Downs’ Queen of Terre Haute Casino and Resort near the Interstate 70 exit to Indiana 46.

“In our view, the long-term fortunes of the city and region are not likely to be determined by the location of a casino or the success (or failure) of the convention center,” Guell and Christ said in their forecast.

None of the potential bright spots on the horizon will materialize unless Terre Haute’s labor force stops shrinking. Guell and Christ call that problem “the defining feature of the Terre Haute economic landscape.”

That predicament even got mentioned during Mayor Duke Bennett’s address at the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce’s otherwise upbeat “City Update” on Thursday. “The labor pool is too small here,” Bennett said during the annual event at The Meadows.

Worker shortages plague cities across the U.S. as a byproduct of the pandemic. The situation’s been labeled the “reverse square root” pattern, Guell and Christ explained. Workers who lost jobs during the business and industry shutdowns in 2020 have only gradually returned to the labor force, for a variety of reasons.

That pattern looks different in Terre Haute. Employment nationwide and in other Indiana metros was on a solid 10-year climb just before the pandemic hit. By contrast, Terre Haute had been losing workers during that stretch, and that loss was accelerating, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures in the economic forecast. The local labor force shrank at a similar rate to the state and nation during the pandemic, but — unlike fellow Indiana cities and the rest of the country — hasn’t stopped declining since.

By last August, the U.S. labor force was 5% larger than in 2009, when the “Great Recession” began, while other Indiana metros combined were 1% larger, according to statistics from the Indiana Business Research Center at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Terre Haute’s labor force was 14% smaller than in 2009. The Terre Haute metro — which includes Vigo, Clay, Sullivan and Vermillion counties — had a labor force of nearly 90,000 workers in the mid-1990s. As of last December, the Terre Haute metro’s labor force totaled just 69,185 workers.

“That’s up against a local wave of people just leaving,” Guell said in an interview Thursday.

Families are moving out of the four-county area “at an alarming pace,” the forecast states. A declining birth rate — a national trend that is, yet again, more profound in Terre Haute than the rest of Indiana, according to Indiana Department of Health figures — explains only part of the region’s overall population slide.

The Terre Haute metro region’s birth rate shrank by almost 8% from 2013 to 2019, just before the pandemic. Birth rates for the rest of Indiana and the combined other metros fell by an average of less than 3%. On top of that, the number of local kindergarten students is 3% smaller than the birth-rate trend predicts. And, the yearly sizes of grades 1 through 8 are 1.75% smaller than the declining birth rate would indicate, according to the forecasters.

That means the out-migration is compounding the low birth rates here.

“It is stark,” Guell said.

Residents moving away isn’t new to Terre Haute. The city’s population topped 70,000 in the 1960s and ‘70s, but fell below 59,000 in 2020 — just the second time that’s happened since 1910. The mayor disputes the 2020 U.S. Census figure of 58,389, contending the process under-counted local college students and more likely should show the population at a static level.

Still, he supports a community strategic plan to reverse the population decline and raise chronically low per-capita incomes.

Guell and Christ believe the path to such a turnaround hinges on attracting new workers with revitalized local schools, growth in ISU’s enrollment, strong manufacturing and healthcare employment, and appealing public amenities. Construction jobs on the convention center and casino projects, and energy surrounding the openings of those facilities, will bring a short-term economic boost. But they believe the casino’s long-term impact could’ve been greater if it was located near other entertainment venues, such as the convention center, along the Wabash riverfront area near The Mill, or near the Haute City Center mall area. Casino visitors might’ve spent time and money at nearby businesses, too. On an interstate exit, casino-goers may spend their entire stay and funds at just the casino.

Other assets are more likely to attract the needed young workers, Christ said.

“Families with young kids want things to do, and going to a casino isn’t one of them,” Christ said in an interview Thursday.

“I personally think one of our biggest assets is our riverfront,” he added.

Christ and Guell question whether Vigo County still needs three high schools, but firmly believe the Vigo County School Corp. referendum for a $261-million rebuilding and renovation project for Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South and West Vigo high schools is crucial for the community’s future.

“The investment in the schools is huge,” Christ said. “That’s one of the things people will be looking at in moving here — ‘What kind of schools will my kid attend?’”
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