The release of the 2020 U.S. Census on Thursday left Vigo County and its surrounding counties with two persistent questions.

The first: What can the Wabash Valley do to grow its population?

The second: What does the future of west-central Indiana hold if the number of residents continues to dwindle?

The situation matters. School districts, including the Vigo County School Corporation, have experienced a decline in enrollment throughout the past decade as the family-age population has shrunk. That shrinkage means the school systems are facing funding decreases, possible school closings and consolidation. Similar fates await cities and towns.

The Census Bureau still has more statistics to release, including the population of cities and towns. Still, Thursday’s numbers began painting the picture of the accumulation of individuals and families who call the Wabash Valley “home.”

For starters, there are fewer of us. Population counts declined between the 2010 and 2020 censuses for Vigo County (1.6%), Clay (1.5%), Sullivan (3.1%), Vermillion (4.8%) and Parke (6.8%). Only two other Hoosier counties shrank by larger percentages than Parke — nearby Greene at 7.1% and Switzerland in southeastern Indiana at 8.3%.

Also, the growth that most metropolitan areas experienced during the past decade bypassed the Terre Haute metropolitan statistical area (or MSA). The Terre Haute metro — which includes Vigo, Clay, Parke, Sullivan and Vermillion — was one of only two MSAs in Indiana to lose population from 2010 to 2020, according to analysis by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. The Terre Haute MSA population declined by 2.1%, joining only Muncie’s minus-4.1%.

The situation leaves the counties in the Terre Haute MSA as demographic outliers. Generally, life as a hub or rim county of a metro area in Indiana means growth. Cumulatively, the 44 counties that are within an MSA grew by an average of 6.3%. The affluent 11-county Indianapolis doughnut had an off-the-charts expansion of 11.8% since 2010. Its overall population now totals 2.1 million people. Almost a third of all Hoosiers live there. Other metros also grew, though, like Fort Wayne at 7.6%, Columbus 7.1%, Lafayette 6.7% and Jeffersonville-Louisville 6.2%.

Instead of rolling on the growth wave with other metro counties, Vigo and its neighbors are among the 49 that got smaller in the past 10 years. “This represents the largest number of Indiana counties to show a decline between censuses since the 1980s,” said Matt Kinghorn, senior demographer at Kelley’s Indiana Business Research Center.

Vigo County has not experienced much growth since 1970. Only one decennial census count in the past 50 years has shown growth for Vigo. The population here jumped 1.9% between 2000 and 2010. The county’s population peaked in 1970 at 114,528. That same year, Tippecanoe County — home to Lafayette and West Lafayette — was smaller than Vigo, with 109,378 residents. Thursday’s Census release showed Tippecanoe’s population totaling 186,251. It would be easy to credit Purdue University’s presence with Tippecanoe’s edge over Vigo. But that Big Ten Conference institution has been there since 1869.

The projects and initiatives ongoing in Vigo County and the Terre Haute MSA counties need to go forward to shift west-central Indiana into the growth category. That means investment in improvements to local school districts; quality-of-life amenities like the Terre Haute Convention Center, Turn to the River, the National Road Heritage Trail, Wabash Valley Riverscape, Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area, and the city and county parks; regional partnerships between the local counties; the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce’s “See You in Terre Haute Community Plan;” and necessities for small towns such as a pharmacy for West Terre Haute. That requires a continuation of both public and private contributions. It requires collaboration and persistence, which led to the important pedestrian walkway along “the grade” between West Terre Haute and Terre Haute.

Thursday’s census results should be a source of motivation that the Terre Haute area needs to grow, like most Hoosier metros.
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