Everybody ponders the future.

It crosses the minds of elected officials and government leaders, students and teachers, young moms and dads, business owners and employees, carpenters and hair stylists, nurses and farmers. Most want their communities to improve and grow. They've got a mental image of the best-case-scenario for their town 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

Any goals the leaders and residents of Vigo County and Terre Haute have for their community come with a big question.

Can their goals for this city and county come true with a dwindling, aging population? That is what's been happening, and it's not projected to change much. Unless, that is, the community doubles down on tactics to attract new residents, and not just new businesses.

The realities are sinking in as 2021 begins. Vigo County School Corp. officials are conducting a series of meetings with the public to discuss the school district's strategic plan to close and repurpose West Vigo and Deming elementary schools by the end of the current school year. A third elementary school could close in 2022, and the closing of a fourth is possible in a "right-sizing" process.

"You're seeing the consequence of four or five different demographic forces at once, and all of them, unfortunately, lead to smaller school populations," said Jerome McKibben, the senior demographer for McKibben Demographic Research. In compiling a study of the VCSC's future enrollment, his firm researched the overall county's population trends.

How low can it go?

Last February, VCSC Superintendent Rob Haworth announced the district's enrollment had slipped below the 14,000-student plateau for the first time. McKibben's study projects Vigo County's total enrollment to shrink to 13,000 students by the 2030-31 school year, just a decade from now. Just 15 years ago, the VCSC had 16,420 students.

That dramatic slide is the result of pervasive declines in the county's broader population, McKibben's study shows. The number of empty-nester households is growing. Likewise, the number of young families moving into the county is static. The median age of a Vigo Countian was 36 years in 2010. By 2030, it'll be 39.1.

The natural increase in population — more births than deaths — stood at a positive 1,600 between 2010 and 2015, and 1,040 between 2015 and 2020. It will fall into in the negative between 2025 and 2030, with 240 more deaths than births, McKibben's projections say.

Left as-is, Vigo County's population shrinkage could finally bottom out in 20 years as the Baby Boom generation dies off, McKibben said.

"The wild card is foreign immigration," he added. Nationally, foreign immigration grew by less than 0.5% between 2017 and 2018, the lowest rate since 2010, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. The Trump administration's restrictive policies likely contributed to that slowing.

Just 3% of Vigo County's 107,038 current residents are foreign born, according to the 2019 Census estimates. That's far below the national average of 13.6%. So, logically, a concerted effort to attract new residents from abroad could help replenish the local population and labor force. But such a progressive idea is beyond unlikely in this conservative county in this political era.

Fortunately, a quasi-public entity — West Central 2025 — has set goals of stopping the population decline, boosting this region's low average household incomes and education levels within the next five years. The project involves local colleges, public agencies and nonprofits. The pandemic's effects don't help, but Terre Haute has ventures underway — the new downtown convention center, a renovated Hulman Center, Turn to the River and a planned casino — that may give this city a quicker restart than others.

This community isn't alone in its shrinkage.

"This is not a Vigo County problem. This is an issue that thousands of communities across the country, and hundreds across Indiana, are grappling with," McKibben said.

Yet, some Indiana communities are growing. Tippecanoe County — home of the Wabash River cities of Lafayette and West Lafayette and Purdue University — had 5,000 fewer residents than Vigo County in 1970. Today, Tippecanoe's population stands at 195,732 and is projected to hit 213,870 by 2030. Greater Lafayette is the 100 fastest growing metropolitan areas in America since 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

Vigo's population is projected to be 107,777 in 2030, a gain of a few hundred, Census figures say.

As for the official 2020 population counts, results of the decennial census are due to be distributed to Vigo County, Terre Haute, Indiana and the other states around April 1. Pandemic-related issues and other problems could delay those numbers. A statement from the National League of Cities cautions communities that some could be undercounted.

"The final count numbers are still in question, particularly in areas that saw mass movements of their population due to the pandemic, like college towns and snowbird cities," the League stated.

As home to four colleges, Terre Haute is indeed a college town. The accuracy of census count — which began a year ago and ended in October — is affected, of course, by the number of students who responded or were reached in follow-up efforts. The full number of those residents, plus others, is crucial. The count determines federal funding for states, cities, counties and townships, from public schools to food assistance programs, hospital grants, Medicare reimbursements for doctors, infrastructure, congressional representation and more.

Students, just like other residents, use community services. Federal funding averages $1,800 per resident, said Carol O. Rogers, the governor's census liaison for Indiana. It helps cities and towns to continue providing those services.

Vigo County's population count matters. "Having this count is one of the most fundamental things we have to know," Rogers said Tuesday afternoon.

Whatever the 2020 population turns out to be, there are plenty reasons for community efforts to reverse its family-age population decline by the next census in 2030.
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