The Community Foundation of Wabash County and Grow Wabash County announced their plans to pursue a $5 million grant opportunity from Lilly Endowment, according to a Wednesday press release.

Through the seventh phase of its Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow (GIFT) initiative, Lilly Endowment seeks to support Indiana community foundations to improve the quality of life in their respective towns, cities, and counties. Lilly Endowment stated in its GIFT VII request for proposals:

“Disruptive economic forces have created new challenges for residents across the state as wages have stagnated for traditional ‘middle-class’ workers and jobs that once supported large percentages of community residents have been eliminated. Recent studies from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., have shown large concentrations of Indiana job growth in low-paying, low-skill positions and the need for Indiana to attract or develop more middle-and high-skill jobs in key economic sectors that can better support pathways to more sustainable lives for Hoosiers. Furthermore, many employers indicate that they have difficulty finding employees with the education, skills, training and other attributes required for the jobs they do have open. These challenges, coupled with Indiana’s low educational attainment and physical and mental health challenges that include widespread substance abuse crises, obesity and high smoking rates, are ones that Indiana communities will face as they seek to generate economic growth, attract and retain talent, boost incomes and improve their residents’ quality of life.”

The Community Leadership Grants of GIFT VII challenge community foundations to address local challenges and opportunities, such as developing more mid and high-level jobs, improving community health, or increasing access and quality of education.

The Community Foundation is eligible to submit a proposal for $5 million to address Wabash County needs and has elected to partner with Grow Wabash County to study Wabash County’s population decline.

In the northeast Indiana region, which is comprised of 11 counties, Wabash County is the only county with negative growth.

Keith Gillenwater, the CEO of Grow Wabash County, stated they seek to reverse this trend.

“Population growth is critical to the well-being of our county” stated Gillenwater. “A declining population means greater challenges for local businesses, smaller class sizes in the local schools, less recreational activities and restaurants, and overall, a lower quality of life.”

Pursuit of the $5 million funding requires several stages and most importantly, community engagement. The first stage is planning, which can involve convening community stakeholders, seeking recommendations from external consultants, and conducting community assessments. Second, is the implementation stage, in which strategies are investigated to address conceived initiatives.

The Community Foundation is in the midst of the planning stage. Earlier this year, the Community Foundation was awarded a $50,000 leadership planning grant to convene community leaders and gather resources in order to discover the reasons for Wabash County’s population decline. To do this, the Community Foundation partnered with Grow Wabash County, and together, they have partnered with the Community Research Institute and Transform Consulting Group in Wabash to conduct quantitative and qualitative studies.

Additionally, the Community Foundation and Grow Wabash County have gathered a group of 30 stakeholders to address population decline. This group participated in a three-day Community Development course led by Ball State University’s Indiana Communities Institute.

Patty Grant, the Community Foundation’s executive director, stated she is “grateful the group elected to participate in the training” as she is certain the knowledge and input gained will be valuable in the process moving forward.
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