Covering 1978 to 2016, this graph shows the population decline for Wabash County, in blue, as compared to the population increase in the 11-county northeast Indiana region. Provided graphic
Covering 1978 to 2016, this graph shows the population decline for Wabash County, in blue, as compared to the population increase in the 11-county northeast Indiana region. Provided graphic
This summer, Grow Wabash County and the Community Foundation of Wabash County partnered to take a deep dive into one of the most pressing issues facing Wabash County: population decline.

Since then, representatives from the two organizations have taken it upon themselves to address various groups around the county and share with them the findings from their research.

One such presentation occurred earlier this month at the Manchester Community Schools (MCS) board meeting, where Patty Grant, executive director of the Community Foundation of Wabash County, and Tenille Zartman, vice president of Grow Wabash County, presented the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Grant said the two organizations partnered on the study, which was funded by Lilly Endowment’s Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow (GIFT) initiative phase VII grant.

“We wanted to sharpen the focus. We wanted to create a sense of urgency across the whole county,” she said.

The Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne worked with Transform Consulting Group, Becker Consulting and Make No Small Plans to provide data.

“Population decline in Wabash County has been a real but almost invisible trend when factored against rising income, increasing households and escalating property values,” stated the study. “Just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and its potential for detrimental effects is not far off for Wabash County.”

Projected decline by the numbers

Zartman said Wabash County’s population, which peaked at 36,582 in 1980 and sat at 31,443 in 2016, is projected to continue to decline through 2050. Those numbers represent a 14.05 percent decrease.

“Although the population is declining, our number of households is increasing,” she said.

Zartman said this was because there were more single non-family homes. She said Manchester University students were not included in that data, just full-time residents.

Wabash County’s employment picture was still heavily manufacturing-based but this sector has lost 50.35 percent of its jobs in the last 17 years. Overall per capita personal income in Wabash County is also below the national average.

School enrollment is also falling in all two of the three school districts in Wabash County and is projected to continue to do so. Though, Zartman said these numbers were ahead of forecasts. However, she said this trend was not sustainable as most of the new students were from surrounding counties, which were also losing population.

Listening to the next generation

Grant said they interviewed focus groups of millennials who grew up in Wabash County, but moved away. She said half of those interviewed didn’t see themselves ever moving back. Of the millennials they interviewed who grew up in Wabash County, but did move back after college, half of those said they were unsure or didn’t expect to stay within the next five years.

Grant said these millennials felt there was a lack of employment opportunities, high-speed internet, housing, retail, public transportation and social engagement.

Grant said the millennials they surveyed suggested: diversifying employment industries, addressing housing issues, investing more resources into schools, marketing Wabash County, developing retail and social opportunities, partnering more with Manchester University and increasing the number of quality jobs and wages.

Zartman said several national trends have been playing out locally. She said this population loss is not the fault of local leadership, but part of a macro problem. She said the growth of adults ages 45 and older means lower family formation and birth rate. She said the declining manufacturing employment meant there was a need for financial activities and business services and professional jobs.

Zartman said given the distance from a metro area and the lack of interstate access meant the geographic isolation of Wabash County was also a detriment. She said several rural communities around the country and world are struggling with the same issues.

Solutions

Grant said there was no magic bullet to stemming the tide, but that they had to be strategic, intentional and bold. She said it was time to focus on what they could control.

“This is not the time to tinker,” she said.

Grant said developing a comprehensive plan for Wabash County and a fiscal policy analysis would be essential. She said strengthening resources, partnering with organizations in the region, welcoming newcomers, continue downtown revitalization efforts and advancing housing strategies would also be key.

“We hear often from Manchester University folks that are locating here that they can’t find good places to live. That’s a shame and we want to focus on that,” she said.

Zartman said on the economic development front, they should be aggressive in their support of existing businesses, support entrepreneurship and innovation and leverage Wabash County’s core economic strengths.

Zartman said in terms of education, they needed to maintain a competitive system, develop local job opportunities and skills requirements, create sustainable incentives for young adults to start careers and develop student school engagement.

“Be the school of choice. Make the faculty of Manchester University want to live here because they want to put their kids in school here so they’re not driving back to Fort Wayne at the end of the workday,” she said.
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