Cathy Weatherspoon, left, and Riley Tangeman, center, listed as Jonesboro Mayor Bob McNutt speaks about solutions and problems in Grant County during a small group session Tuesday on issues facing rural communities. Staff photo by Leeann Doerflein
Cathy Weatherspoon, left, and Riley Tangeman, center, listed as Jonesboro Mayor Bob McNutt speaks about solutions and problems in Grant County during a small group session Tuesday on issues facing rural communities. Staff photo by Leeann Doerflein
Leaders from around Indiana gathered at Ivy Tech Marion to hear statistics behind housing issues facing rural communities on Tuesday.

The Community Foundation of Grant County invited sociologist Ben Winchester, senior research fellow with Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, to share statistics and guide local officials toward solutions.

Winchester’s talk centered around the alleged myth that there is not enough working class housing in rural communities. Winchester said this is a myth because in a lot of cases rural houses are just dilapidated or occupied too long by elderly residents.

During the next 20 years, he said rural communities must be prepared to welcome a new generation of residents, as about three-quarters of owner-occupied housing will become available. Winchester foresees this trend because about 77 percent of homes in rural communities are owned by seniors and baby boomers.

Based on those coming into and leaving rural communities for work each day, Winchester said the greatest opportunity is those “moving over,” since about 11,000 people leave or come into Marion for work. While many may want to “move over” to communities like Marion, the obstacle becomes if there is available housing for seniors and for working families.

While there is no silver bullet, leaders who attended were encouraged to expand the conversation about housing in their community and rebuild the model of housing demand to create the housing stock needed to grow rural communities.

“Opening senior housing is one and the same as opening up other housing,” Winchester said.

Leaders were encouraged to capitalize on programs to make seniors’ homes more valuable before they have to leave, such as a grant or loan program.

Winchester said his data indicates that seniors are living alone longer and are more reluctant to leave their home near the end of their life. So, another narrative to rewrite is how seniors look at their home. Some seniors have the idea that their house will sit vacant when they move out or pass away.

“It was a home to you. It was a home to someone before you. It will be a home to people after you,” Winchester said.

Winchester encouraged families to be proactive and get on the same page about the future of their home to avoid emergency end of life situations and situations that could cause the house to fall into disrepair.

The talk was followed by break-out sessions where attendees talked about what is working now, what could work better and what should or could be developed to attract, retain and plan for new residents.

In one session, participants said what is working well in Grant County right now is the economy and always getting new talent to see the community when they attend the local universities.

Some opportunity areas participants found were providing young professionals with opportunities to get involved outside the office and increasing public transportation to make the community more accessible during more hours of the day.

“Your community has to be someplace people want to live, not just a place where your job is,” said Brad Bishop, a businessman from Warsaw.

“A challenge is lack of diversity age-wise,” said Marion young professional Riley Tangeman. “It can make it challenging to stay here because it makes you question if this is the right place for you or why you are taking the hard route.”

One of the biggest changes that Marion needs may be an attitude adjustment, according to some participants.

“There’s a lot of people in Grant County that believe we are less than OK,” said Pam Leslie of Marion. “When you talk one-on-one to people they say these things. But I wonder how so many amazing people live and work here and feel this way?”
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