The three Wabash County planning commissions don’t generally meet together or on a lighted stage.

But, a special joint meeting last week was significant enough to warrant such changes.

Members of the combined Wabash County, Wabash and North Manchester plan commissions met Thursday, June 16 on stage in the auditorium of Wabash High School to approve the recently-released Imagine One 85 (IO85) Comprehensive Plan.

The meeting was led by Grow Wabash County (GWC) president and CEO Keith Gillenwater and Community Foundation of Wabash County (CFWC) executive director Patty Grant.

In introducing the item, Grant referenced one of her favorite idioms, “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far, go with others.”

“I am certain with your leadership we can go far,” said Grant.

In March, the CFWC and GWC released the first publicly available version of the IO85 comprehensive plan. The group had 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.

Marilyn Custer-Mitchell, who is on the GWC board and has lived in Wabash County for nearly 15 years, said she thought it was “wonderful that we have a county-wide plan that everyone’s engaged in.”

“We consider Wabash County our home and we plan to stay here,” said Custer-Mitchell. “I think we need to change this trend. It’s important to the future of our county.”

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.

Jim Smith, who is a former member of the Wabash County Council and is currently president of the North Manchester Town Council, said he wanted to thank GWC, CFWC and the “hundreds of citizens who have devoted many, many hours.”

“This plan sets out a hope to reverse our downward spiral of population loss by involving the entire county,” said Smith “This is our best shot to grow and prosper. This is our best hope to come together and address population decline. If this plan is not endorsed and followed, we are in the not too distant future likely to not have a critical mass of people in the county to serve.”

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.

“This plan in my mind is not about everybody on that stage or everybody in the audience, it’s about the students who walk through the doors of this school and every elementary school and high school throughout the county,” said Mayor Scott Long. “We have to reverse this trend of population loss. For a number of years, the city of Wabash, North Manchester and the county has built a collaboration together. It wasn’t always that way. We’ve worked together. We’re all in the same boat now. This plan is going to make sure that everybody is rowing in the same direction and we’re not rowing against each other.”

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.

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.

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.

After each of the boards accepted the plan, in turn, the audience erupted in a short burst of applause.

Gillenwater said the next steps would be to take the plan to the local public bodies including the Wabash County Commissioners, Wabash City Council and North Manchester Town Council for final adoption.
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