Attendees at a Randolph County Economic Development Corporation meeting Wednesday worked to identify ways to think about the comprehensive county economic development process and to create a starting point for a new such process.
County economic development board members said the current approach to growing the local economy is not working and it’s time to try something new. The county has engaged Ball State University researchers and policy specialists to guide the process. Wednesday’s meeting was led by Indiana Communities Institute Rural Policy Research Center Director David Terrell and BSU Center for Business and Economic Research Assistant Professor and Rural Demographer Emily J. Wornell.
“We have a new way of thinking about community economic development and we wanted to share this with Randolph County,” Terrell said. “It’s more than coincidental that a northern Indiana county recently contacted us to say what they’ve been doing isn’t working and they need to try something new – so you’re not the only county who is thinking like this. It’s important to share this new paradigm.”
He said the new way of thinking about this process, not an entirely new pattern but one that is wanting for implementation, is to look at building wealth as a community.
Wornell said her research for the BSU Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) has identified eight types of capital that work together to build economic development. These economic resources are: human capital (the community’s population with its educational skills and talents), social capital (relationships and networks found in civil society), political capital (the influence, power and goodwill wielded by individuals), cultural capital (the practices, values and identity of a society), physical capital (physical infrastructure, such as equipment, buildings, roads and bridges), natural capital (resources provided by mother nature), financial capital (available money and liquid assets), and intellectual capital (the stock of human knowledge and ideas). She said they all work together to build an economy, or if they are lacking – they work together to undermine the same.
“We have to look at all of these aspects when we’re considering economic development,” she said. “We have to look at community wellbeing overall if we want to grow the community.”
She said rural communities are declining in population. Many rural communities are losing in total population but gaining foreign-born ethnic minorities.
“Immigration is the largest driver of population change, now and in the future,” she said.
“We need to ask ourselves, how do we make sure we get a diverse representation in our centers of power and influence to be sure they are being heard. It is important to increase our diversity. Second generation immigrants are the most financially active of any group. They use the least number of government programs and the least amount of financial assistance. You need to keep them engaged in business in the community and in leadership positions.”
Also, she noted, it is a good general rule to involve young people in the economy and economic planning.
Wornell said educational attainment is another important factor. People with less than a high school education or a high school equivalent diploma (groups that taken together account for 57.3 percent of Randolph County residents) are most dramatically affected by changes in the economy such as automation as they have the fewest transferable skills.
“Income inequality has increased over time from 1970 to the present,” she said. “This is true nationally, as well as in Randolph County. But it is growing at a faster rate in Randolph County than it is in the state as a whole. It is an important question to look into, why is inequality growing in our community.”
She said poverty which is also growing in the state, but more so in Randolph County, has a big impact on physical and mental health – it lowers an individual’s ability to learn, to work and it increases illness rates.
“We need to think about employment and unemployment,” she said. “A lot of discouraged workers left the workforce during the recession. Some of them have come back while others are coming back gradually. Why is there a mismatch between jobs and people in the labor force? A lot of employers are saying they have jobs, and they just need to get them filled.”
Terrell said the snapshot of the community presented by Wornell, including numerous statistics about various aspects of how the county functions as a whole, are benchmarks to help gauge where we really are.
“We have to start some hard slogging to carry it forward,” he said. “It is going to involve interviews, focus groups and surveys over a 6-month to 1-year period. The outcome will hopefully become a better understanding of what’s really good for the community.
“This is really innovative.”
County Community Development Corporation Board Member Clyde Shaffer said it is obvious that what county officials have done for the past 20 years is not really working, so we need to give something else a try.
“We have the right timing,” Shaffer said. “I think our citizens are ready as a whole. I think the community will be welcoming and will embrace a new approach.”
Terrell said the new economic development approach will be individualized for Randolph County based on economic and social data and input by local professionals.