A group of residents participating in the Hometown Collaboration Initiatives brainstorm Orange County's placemaking needs. (Photo credit: Annie Ropeik, Indiana Public Broadcasting)
Small towns across Indiana are trying modernize their economies and hold onto younger residents. But where do you start? With jobs? Quality of life? Or somewhere else entirely?
Making that decision can be complicated, as residents found out recently in Orange County.
It's home to Lost River Market & Deli, which looks a little out of place in tiny, rural Paoli. This organic food co-op might fit in better in Bloomington or Louisville, Kentucky, each just an hour away.
And with only a Walmart and a shrinking number of chain supermarkets in Orange County, co-op manager Debbie Turner says people would make that drive, spending their money out of town.
She says that’s made it tough to grow the local economy.
"And so we play that role, that we can have a small business that actually survives -- it would really be nice if it was thriving, but at least surviving – as a model that you can do this," Turner says. "A community can decide what it wants, and then create a business and support a business that provides for that."
But the co-op hasn’t turned a profit yet. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that’s familiar to many Indiana towns working on revitalizing: new business can’t be supported when people don’t want to live and work in town – but residents aren’t attracted to places without a healthy economy.
Orange County used to thrive as a furniture manufacturing hub. But those jobs have dried up. The county's unemployment rate was the highest in the state in April, at 5.9 percent. And all of its proverbial eggs – or, perhaps, all of its chickens – are now in the tourism basket.
It’s anchored by French Lick Resort and Casino, which employs about 1,600 people -- equivalent to almost ten percent of the county's 19,000 residents.
But Steve Ferguson, President of the Board for French Lick Resort, says it’s not sustainable to pin the county’s economy to the resort.
"I try and say to people locally, use the hotel as a catalyst to make your community better," he said. "Don't make the hotel the center of your community."
Purdue University is partnering with the state to help community leaders do that, as part of the Hometown Collaboration Initiative, or HCI. It assigns “coaches” to small towns or counties to teach residents about either growing their economies, training new leaders or improving their quality of place.
"Quite frankly, the county could benefit from all of them," said Orange County coach Tanya Hall, who also lives in Paoli.
But each community has to pick one area to focus on.
At a recent meeting, the Orange County team rotated around three big brainstorming charts in a community center classroom, writing down arguments for each possibility.
They're using survey data from 714 residents, who generally say they’re happy with their quality of place – they like Debbie Turner’s co-op, for instance.
But they also say they’re worried that county leaders lack vision for keeping young people here. That was evident in the last election, when most incumbents lost their seats.
Paoli Community Schools superintendent Casey Brewster fills in a box on the leadership chart with resident feedback about officials’ community plans. "I have one, two, three, four total question marks," he said.
But at the next table over, another participant thinks the surveys show jobs are more pressing.
"It makes the young want to leave so that they can make a true living wage," she says. "And it discourages those who want to come into the community, because of the natural assets or anything else, from coming in, because they need to make it. "
Thirty-one-year-old Delilah McAdams is one younger participant. She couldn't find a job close to Paoli with her sociology degree, so she moved back to work at the family funeral home.
"I love living here, but if it weren't for my family, I wouldn't live here, sadly," she says. "I think there's a lot of good hearts in the community, but we need a lot of growth for it to become appealing to people my age, generally."
But for her, growth isn’t just about jobs. It’s about cultivating diversity, and supporting new ideas.
Don Renner is all for that. He’s a longtime French Lick town councilman, one of the few who kept his seat last election. He thinks quality of place has already been addressed.
"And now, to go beyond the ‘dress ourselves up’ is to figure out how, to my mind, how we get better jobs for folks – and, I agree, create more leaders, because I don’t want to keep doing this," Renner says.
So when it comes time to decide on a focus, he sits himself right in between those two tables.
"I want about two-thirds over here" – on the economy side – "and a third over there," on the leadership side, he said with a laugh.
Orange County is choosing both the chicken and the egg – deciding you really can't have one without the other. And that was arguably the easy part. Now, they'll have to learn to devise actual solutions for Orange County’s challenges.