This community’s check-engine light came on last week.

It was triggered by school superintendent Rob Haworth’s announcement to folks gathered for his State of the Schools address that enrollment in the Vigo County School Corp. had dipped below 14,000 for the first time.

Haworth and school district staff have responded by crafting a five-year strategic plan around its continuing enrollment drop — both to “right size” its operations for a smaller number of students, and also for the VCSC to help the entire community to reverse its population decline in the future.

“We have to turn the corner on our population decline,” Haworth told the Tribune-Star editorial board last month.

Indeed, school district leaders are serious about the situation. Elementary schools will close, for example. The broader population decline causing the enrollment drop deserves to be addressed with an equal sense of urgency from the community.

Projections that the Terre Haute metropolitan area’s population will shrink by 5.4% by 2050 aren’t mystic visions. The Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s renowned Kelley School of Business calculated the projections for all 15 of the state’s metropolitan areas.

The research center projects 11 cities to grow, and the other four — Michigan City-LaPorte, Terre Haute, Muncie and Kokomo — to dwindle. Why? The short-term causes are birth rates that have been dropping since the “great recession,” and a larger number of people are moving out, rather than into, those towns. In the long term, the remaining populations in those four metros will grow more aged than other Hoosier cities because of the short-term causes.

Of course, it’s already happening. The overall VCSC enrollment fell to 13,968 students as of Feb. 3, down from 14,190 last fall. The current total marks a drop of 2,452 students since 2005. A study for the school district predicts the VCSC enrollment to shrink by another 636 students in the next eight years. As the Tribune-Star’s Sue Loughlin reported last week, a loss of 636 students also represents a yearly funding drop of $4.14 million to the district.

That affects the local economy, too. The VCSC is Terre Haute’s largest employer, with 2,352 teachers, counselors, administrators, bus drivers, kitchen crew, custodians, maintenance workers and other support staff. If the local school district gets smaller, so does the Terre Haute economy. So do businesses that rely on young families and their educators as customers. So do churches, service organizations, charities, youth sports leagues, city and county boards, and nonprofits that count on teens, and twenty-to-forty-somethings as volunteers and donors.

Fewer high school graduates means fewer homegrown graduates of the local colleges, fewer future business owners and a smaller workforce to attract outside businesses.

This shrinking population thing is a big deal. Reversing the slide is an even bigger deal.

“It’s critical to everything,” said Kristin Craig, president of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce. “It’s critical for every taxing entity. It’s critical for businesses. It’s critical for the school corporation. It’s critical for everybody.”

It was encouraging to see the Chamber build its “See You in Terre Haute 2025 Community Plan” around fixing the problem. The plan’s core goals are halting the population decline and reversing the decline in per-capita incomes here. Both missions are connected. The average Vigo County per-capita income is just 81% of Hoosiers elsewhere. That disparity doesn’t help attract skilled workers looking to relocate. Likewise, lower pay pushes residents to move to other places and dissuades local college grads from staying here to live, work and raise families.

Riverfront improvements

Last fall, the Chamber unveiled its plan, aiming to accomplish objectives within six years, or to make progress toward the goals. The Chamber solicited residents’ ideas through a survey, and more than 1,300 responded. It also conducted six local forums. Many responses focused on improving quality-of-life amenities, particularly pushing forward with enhancements on the Wabash River front.

“That was the big quality-of-place piece to them,” Craig said.

Others called for more business resources, such as placing the Chamber, the West Central Indiana Small Business Development Center, and Launch Terre Haute into one location. Many cited the need for expanded, community-based recovery programs for people with addictions. Some envisioned more outreach to seniors and faith organizations.

With a low cost of living, college town attributes, and an increasingly aging population, Terre Haute would seem ripe to become a mecca for retirees. “Why are we not recruiting more people of retirement age to live here?” Craig said.

A total of 8,601 people commute from elsewhere into Vigo County to work, according to a 2017 calculation by the Indiana Business Research Center. Almost one-fourth of those commuters — 1,925, to be exact — drive in from Illinois. “Let’s talk to them about living here,” Craig said.

“See You in Terre Haute” includes several objectives for an economic development task force to take on through the next five years. By reversing the population and income declines, Terre Haute could become a growing, more diverse town. The enthusiastic response to the plan “gives me a great deal of optimism that we can achieve these goals and turn things around for this community,” Craig said.

Progress on those goals could help earn the Terre Haute area a state designation as a “21st Century Talent Region,” joining South Bend-Elkhart, Hamilton County, and regions around Bloomington, Fort Wayne and Columbus. It centers on communities within a region collaborating on projects that benefit all. Not coincidentally, populations in those five existing talent regions are projected to grow.

“In today’s highly mobile society, we have to create environments where people want to live, work, learn and play to grow our population,” said Blair Milo, the former LaPorte mayor and secretary of Indiana’s Career Connections and Talent division. “This takes a coordinated approach that may look different in each community and leverages the diverse and plentiful assets of Indiana.”

Focus on attracting people

Population declines in places like Terre Haute and Muncie aren’t a new phenomenon. In fact, 1950s economists and sociologists could’ve predicted the current situation. “They could’ve told you where your heading,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State.

Hicks not only studies state and national economic issues, he knows Muncie and Terre Haute, too. He works now in Muncie, and lived on South Seventh Street in Terre Haute during his college years at Indiana State University, after his military service overseas.

Terre Haute “has a lot of assets that other communities around the state would die for,” Hicks said. But Terre Haute could benefit by redirecting economic development efforts toward quality-of-place investments, he added.

Cities with more jobs than the local workforce can fill need to make their community a more desirable destination for new workers, rather than devoting resources to bringing in even more jobs, Hicks said.

He also questions the value of cities offering tax abatements and creating tax-increment financing districts (or TIFs), which divert a portion of property taxes toward development projects. Hicks said 40% of TIFs and tax abatements come at the expense of schools. And schools, Hicks said, are the best quality-of-place investment communities can make.

“The number one thing new residents are looking for is quality schools,” Hicks said.

Most cities understand the need to redirect economic development strategies, Hicks said, but “the problem is, it’s so hard to wean yourself off tax incentives.”

Such revised thinking also harkens to Terre Haute’s boom era from the late 1880s into the 1950s, when the population mushroomed from 26,000 to 70,000. “Terre Haute was one of the wonders of the world” then, Hicks said.

Iconic structures and infrastructure bloomed in that era, from the Indiana Theatre, the Hippodrome, the Swope Art Museum, Memorial Stadium, Deming and Fairbanks parks, Ohio Boulevard, the brewing district and more.

“And what was Terre Haute doing at the time? Was it trying to attract business?” Hicks asked. “Heck, no. It was trying to attract people.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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