This graph shows the local county population loss since 1980. Provided graphic
This graph shows the local county population loss since 1980. Provided graphic
After more than a year of work, a draft plan to curb local population loss was finally released earlier this month.

The Community Foundation of Wabash County (CFWC) and Grow Wabash County (GWC) have released the first publicly available version of the Imagine One 85 (IO85) comprehensive plan, said CFWC director of operations Sam McFadden.

The group has been hard at work on the project for months. This planning process was launched in July 2020 and was anticipated to last 14 months in total. Dozens of community members gathered for the Imagine One 85 Summit on July 14, 2021, in Honeywell Center Plaza, to help provide their input into the proposed plan.

“On behalf of the IO85 Steering Committee members, we express appreciation for hundreds of citizens representing all communities in Wabash County who engaged in Focus on the Future meetings, surveys and the Mighty Wabash County Summit last July,” said CFWC executive director Patty Grant. “Despite the limitation of the pandemic, an engaged public submitted more than 1,000 comments regarding ways to grow Wabash County and realize a bold vision for the county’s future.”

While northeast Indiana’s 11-county region has consistently grown for four decades, Wabash County has not. The 11-county region’s 2020 population total was 797,701 people for Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties, compared to 759,086 in 2010. The three counties that lost population in the past decade were Huntington, Noble and Wabash counties at 462, 79 and 1,912 residents respectively.

After four decades of population decline, there are now around 5,000 fewer residents, a 14 percent decline, one-half of the city of Wabash. To regain the local population and continue to grow as communities, Wabash County will need to add 85 households each year.

In addition to general population loss, Wabash County’s labor force has taken a significant hit over the past few years, down from 15,048 in December 2019 to 14,234 in December 2020.

The stated goal of Imagine One 85 is to come up with a plan that “will ensure our future is not left to chance.”

The 100-page, seven-chapter plan includes 85 action items aimed at growing Wabash County’s population.

Mark Becker, of Becker Consulting, on behalf of Parkview Health, has assisted many northeast Indiana communities with strategic plans.

“Great communities don’t just happen, they result from engaged citizens, thoughtful planning and collaborative leadership,” said Becker. “The communities of Wabash County are to be congratulated for coming together to ‘Imagine One 85,’ establishing a shared vision and shared goals for the future development of the county. Amazing things can happen when opportunity meets preparation – with this plan, Wabash County is preparing itself for an exciting future.”

The plan’s 85 unique recommendations are organized into four topic areas that emerged through community engagement sessions and technical analysis.

These areas include:

Great Places: Preserving, enhancing, and strengthening the natural environment.

Prosperity: Fostering a strong entrepreneurial spirit, growing the economy and supporting educational and professional development.

Housing and Community: Increasing residential options and diversifying housing stock.

Foundations: Strengthening and modernizing infrastructure and improving community connections, design, and efficiency. First to be addressed are a select number of priority actions aimed at reversing population decline. The plan closes with an implementation agenda that keeps the plan moving forward and avoids the common problem of comprehensive plans – good plans that get shelved.

“Population loss is the county’s most serious threat,” says Grow Wabash County CEO and president Keith Gillenwater. “We were thrilled to partner with the Community Foundation of Wabash County and all of the communities of Wabash County to create urgency and awareness about the complicated and damaging dynamics of population loss. The Imagine One 85 Plan will serve as the roadmap to rewriting the future that others have predicted for us.”

Funded in part by a GIFT VII leadership grant to the Community Foundation from Lilly Endowment, the efforts included an in-depth study of County economics and demographics. Announced in June 2019, the comprehensive work had has engaged multiple firms in the technical analysis. They included: the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne, Transform Consulting Group, Becker Consulting, Make No Small Plans, planning NEXT, Ninigret Partners LLC, Burges & Niple, Policy Analytics and One Lucky Guitar.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have reached this point in the Imagine One 85 process. Hours of work were given by everyone involved. Thorough deliberation ensured that the comments and ideas heard throughout the process would be ideas that everyone in the community could take ownership of. We encourage anyone who reads the plan to find a way to participate in its implementation, whether by sharing the plan with others or by getting involved with one of the organizations recommended to lead some of the proposed action items,” said CFWC development associate Melissa Ford-Kalbfell.
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