Blue-collar cities embody most Americans’ perceptions of Indiana. They picture towns filled with unpretentious Hoosiers whose values and work ethics are worth emulating.
Muncie, Kokomo, Michigan City and, yes, Terre Haute come to their minds — places known for basketball stars and championships, automotive manufacturing, power plants, inventors, thinkers and entrepreneurs.
Such cornerstone communities should not become symbols of decline. Yet, those four cities are not experiencing the growth of other metropolitan areas in Indiana, particularly those in the affluent rim counties surrounding Indianapolis. Calculations recently released show population decreases in Terre Haute, Muncie, Michigan City and Kokomo since 2010. The most troubling data involve population projections for Hoosier metros and counties through 2050.
While most of the state’s largest cities are expected to gain residents by the thousands — or in some cases, tens of thousands — those four backbone communities are projected to see their populations shrink by thousands.
Those expectations matter right now, as well as in the future, especially in Terre Haute and Vigo County.
Residents must decide on a plan to renovate or rebuild their three aging local high schools. Ideally, those structures will last, at least, 40 years (the current age of Terre Haute North and Terre Haute South) or 50-plus years (like West Vigo). So, how many students should the new schools be built to accommodate in 2050?
Likewise, the county is considering a larger jail to alleviate overcrowding at the current facility, which is the subject of lawsuits. If a new jail survives for three decades or more, as it should, how many inmates will it need to hold in 2050? Population projections released March 22 by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s respected Kelley School of Business deserve close attention as those decisions are made.
Population booms are expected in most of Indiana’s large cities by 2050. The Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson metropolitan area will gain 619,908 residents, a 32 percent increase, thanks to Hamilton County (home of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville and Westfield). Hamilton County’s population should add 219,000 residents in the next three decades, making it the state’s second most populous county. Significant growth is anticipated in other Hoosier metros including Lafayette-West Lafayette at 29.4 percent, Elkhart-Goshen (24.1), Bloomington (23.1), Columbus (20.5), Fort Wayne (19), Jeffersonville- Louisville (15.1) and Evansville (7.2). South Bend-Mishawaka will grow by a modest 1.4 percent.
Indiana’s old industrial hotbeds may not share in that expansion. Kokomo will likely lose 10.2 percent of its population by 2050, alongside drops of 8.1 percent in Muncie, 6.3 in Terre Haute and 5.5 in Michigan City- LaPorte. The Terre Haute metro (which includes Vigo, Clay, Sullivan and Vermillion counties) was home to 172,425 people in 2010.
Forty years later, that number will shrink to 161,498.
That’s a loss of nearly 11,000 residents. Vigo County alone is expected to see its population slide from 107,848 in 2010 to 105,546 by 2050.
How should that affect plans for new or renovated Vigo high schools? Well, the Business Research Center projects the county’s school age group (kids ages 5 to 19) will be 8 percent smaller in 2050 than it was in 2010.
What about the new jail’s capacity? The 20- to 44-yearold age group — which accounts for the largest percentage of inmates — will decrease by 6.1 percent during that same 40-year span, according to the IBRC.
In fact, Vigo’s only age group expected to get bigger is seniors, people 65 and older. Today, births outnumber deaths by about 400 annually; that difference will be reversed by 2050.
Unless, state and community leaders act to change the trends shaping those projections.
The common response to that situation is, “It’s all about jobs. Terre Haute needs more good-paying jobs.” Ultimately, that’s true, yet it’s almost like saying the remedy for chronic hunger is, “It’s all about food. People need more food.” Well, obviously, but how do we make that happen? Terre Haute has to become a place that prospective businesses and residents like as well or better than other places in Indiana or the Midwest. The state needs to invest more in rebuilding the urban cores of cities like Terre Haute, Muncie, Kokomo and Michigan City. The Regional Cities Initiative pumped $126 million total into three sectors of Indiana that participated in the competition.
Regions surrounding Fort Wayne, Evansville and South Bend each won grants of $42 million. Those cities, and the rural and small towns around them, need that infusion to enhance their quality- of-life amenities — features that attract new employers and residents. Cities like Terre Haute need such an infusion, too.
Those cities also must act. In Terre Haute’s case, the state Legislature did indeed allot the community half of the $75 million required to renovate Hulman Center and add a convention center.
Indiana State University will soon begin the Hulman Center renovation. A now-separate effort to build a convention center is underway.
Both projects will benefit Terre Haute. Both are similar to projects planned in cities expected to grow in the decades ahead.
Terre Haute and cities like it exemplified the term “Hoosier” for decades. That cultural distinction should not be allowed to fade away.