Kerry Thompson, executive director of the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement, makes a point discussing regionalism during a meeting of the Hillenbrand Community Leadership Series
Kerry Thompson, executive director of the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement, makes a point discussing regionalism during a meeting of the Hillenbrand Community Leadership Series

Hillenbrand Community Leadership Series Class IV members met for the first time Oct. 4 to discuss their topic, “Building Regional Capacity.”

Each year, Hillenbrand employees are selected to engage with other community leaders in strategic discussions focusing on continuing to build Batesville into an attractive place to live and work. The 2019-20 class, comprised of business and community leaders from across southeastern Indiana, will focus on expanding thoughts and ideas on how to approach micro-regionalism in rural communities.

For the first gathering, Tory Flynn, Hillenbrand director of communications and public affairs, emphasized, “In regionalism, everyone has a connection. We have an opportunity to create something and change our community ... but it has to be all of us working together.”

She explained that each class has worked together on a project, and this group will do the same.

The first class did a survey of why people work, but don’t live in Batesville. The second one came up with a way to brand the city. Last year’s group focused on connectivity and completed an inventory of Batesville’s amenities. Several members of the latter, Chad Beetz, Steven Harmeyer, Kevin McGuire, Brian Haakinson and Tim Dietz, were in attendance to give a short presentation on what they did.

Two speakers from the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement, executive director Kerry Thomson and strategic partnerships director Joe Carley, discussed regionalism.

Thomson said, “The center started about 18 months ago with a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Our vision is to leverage the assets of IU to turn the university outward and engage with communities. We are focused on various areas, including healthy communities, quality of place, resilience, education, thriving communities and capacity building.”

“We want to build coalitions of the willing. We want to listen to communities about what they want to achieve and help them grow into what they want to be.”

What is the impact? “We have helped 7,000-plus residents in 39 communities in 27 counties with over 148 projects. Nearly 5,000 students have been engaged with the center.”

Carley noted, “We try to bring together groups who are working on the same things. Many have invested in theaters for the performing arts .... We try to bring performances to rural areas.”

Thomson added, “You have to figure out what projects people have an appetite for and then have to figure out a way to make them contagious.”

“Another area we’re looking into is housing .... The housing market in many rural communities is incredibly depressed. There are very few new homes being built .... Infrastructure is also a challenge.

“We are developing a housing ready toolkit, which we will provide to communities to help them know what they need to attract developers and builders to their areas.”

“We’ve gotten groups to help map out where parks and public lands are located ... and mapped where festivals are in certain areas. There’s also branding going on. We’ve branded regions so there’s pride in living there.

“One of the most surprising things I’ve learned when I’m sitting in a workshop with people who live in the region we’re working with is someone will say, ‘I knew that park was there, but I never went there before.’ Asset mapping is needed not just for visitors, but for those who live in the community because people forget what they have.”

She stressed, “Regionalism is so important in rural America because we don’t want every town to have everything .... It’s great that Oldenburg has some things and Batesville has other things, and regionalism is trying to bring those things together.”

Regarding the opioid crisis, an IU professor did a survey on the community’s perceptions about addictions. “This survey helps us understand what a community is most supportive of, what’s going to get the most traction in the community if we only have money to do a limited amount of programs.

“What we’re starting to see is conversations bubbling up between communities. One will say, ‘If you’re going to do this program, can we send people there?’ .... We have a coalition of providers who are building collaboration with each other.”

McGuire pointed out, “I feel in Batesville there is a camp that wants to move things forward and a group that doesn’t want things to change.”

Carley said, “We see that all the time. You work with the willing and try to persuade people who are kind of on the edges.”

Thomson added, “If you pick a great project, even the people who want things the way they are” will see the advantage of doing it. “What we’re seeking to do is increase the coalition of the willing .... Start with the willing, and it will grow.”

The IUCRE duo revealed what lessons they have learned about regionalism:

Cooperation is a first step. “You’re more likely to work with people if you meet them face to face,” Carley maintained.

Capitalize on local momentum. Thomson noted, “Find something that’s working and grow it. If you start with nothing, it takes a lot more energy to get it going.”

Be intentional about networks. Carley said, “We try to work with the willing and try to get people working together who don’t know each other.”

Optimize information flow. “Stay present and get people together on a regular basis. Give them updates. Do not leave them in the dark,” the executive director announced.

Recruit connectors/boundary spanners. “An example is people in high school who know others in another high school,” Carley reported. “Now you have two networks and they can reach out to others. You want people who can say, ‘I know this person is doing this cool project and we can pull them in.’”

Be disciplined about messaging and execution. Thompson emphasized, “You have to be praising your partners .... Have clear talking points and keep on those messages. Make sure you deliver and keep timelines.”

Flynn presented “A Tale of Two Cities.”

She said, “This is our fourth year doing this series, and we often get asked, ‘Why would a company lead this?’” Before answering that question, she showed several pictures of cities.

For the first ones, there were many open storefronts and many people gathered around the area. It was clean and visually attractive. The next pictures showed abandoned and boarded up buildings with no people around.

She said to find the first photos, she Googled “vital cities.” For the second set, she Googled “cities where plants closed.”

“When people ask why we care at Hillenbrand, it’s because you give us the workforce. This directly links to our company. Why would we not care about the community where we operate? The same is true for all the companies represented here.”

“When we’re solving problems, we’re going to solve them on a regional level.”

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