By Paul W. Barada
---- — A lot of attention is lately being paid to the problem of our slowly shrinking county population. All sorts of people have come to realize that the biggest challenge facing Rush County is turning around the slow decline in population and taking the steps necessary to increase the number of people living here.
The problem of population loss is not unique to Rush County. Many rural counties in this state are in the same boat. If the population keeps decreasing, the impact of fewer people living here will first be felt by our schools. If we don’t take action right now to reverse the decline in the number of students attending Rush County Schools, it won’t be long until we won’t be able to afford the programs and equipment that make this a very good school system. The time will come when we’ll have to face the horrible decision about closing schools, for example.
On the other hand, if we can turn the population slide around and more students start attending local schools, we’ll be able to do even more to prepare them to lead productive, successful lives. But a declining student population is just the tip of the iceberg. Fewer people here will mean fewer people supporting local banks, businesses, churches, charitable causes, and nearly every aspect of life one would care to name.
There are two solutions to the problem of the downward drift in the population.
First, is creating more job opportunities that require post-high school training. The way it is now, all of us spend a lot of money educating local kids for somebody else’s community. And the reason for it is a lack of good paying jobs. Second is lack of medium-priced housing. Although I’m prepared to be told I’m wrong, I’m not aware of a single housing development going on in Rush County. There just are no houses in the $130,000 to $230,000 range being built here. So, where do the people who have the good paying jobs live? They live in Shelbyville or New Castle or any of a number of other towns around here that have been able to attract home builders willing to start new housing developments. The obvious point is they don’t live here!
So, there, in a nutshell, you have the solution to turning the problem of a declining population around – more job opportunities and more housing. Sounds simple enough to fix, doesn’t it? Well, jobs and housing are far more difficult problems to solve in this community than one might think. For home builders to be interested in this community there has to be an unmet demand for housing. At the moment that demand doesn’t exist – at least to the extent required for home builders to take notice of us yet. Even more difficult is landing businesses here that will employ local people with more than a high school education.
Ideally, to stop the population loss, both things need to happen at the same time – breaking ground for a new high-tech or med-tech business and breaking ground for a new housing development to provide medium priced homes for the people the new business will hire.
Some progress is being made, however. As soon as the weather permits, work on the infrastructure for the new industrial park-north will begin and the extension of 16th Street will also be underway. That makes turning things around almost a chicken or egg conundrum. If the city or the ECDC talks to a prospective industry, one of the first questions they’ll ask is about housing availability. One of the first questions a housing developer will ask is about new job creation. That’s why, ideally, both things should happen at the same time!
But more people living here is still the basic problem and should be the goal with the highest priority. At least that’s the goal I would rank as most important to the future of Rush County. If we had the housing, we could attract people to live here, even if they work someplace else! And I can’t think of a more ideal place for a new housing development than on the south side of 16th Street extended. It’s a perfect area for medium priced housing – and that’s all that should be allowed in that area. The last thing this county needs is more low-income housing or HUD Section 8 housing. Nor do we don’t need more parking lots. We need people!
Actually, there’s a third component to all this, and that’s marketing this community to home builders and advanced manufacturing companies. The people in the Mays area, for example, are worried about the future of their school. If I were them, I would rally the troops and figure out a way to acquire about 10 acres on the edge of town. Then, I would divide those 10 acres into about twenty half-acre lots for housing. Finally, I would offer those half-acre lots to any family, willing to move to Mays and build a house, for free! I really would! The benefit to the Mays community of 20 new families – hopefully with kids – would more than offset the purchase of the 10 acres – and it would insure the survival of the school for years to come.
More people are the key to the future, not just for Mays, but for all of Rush County. The sooner we get on with the job, the sooner we’ll stop the gradual downward slide in our population.
That’s –30—for this week.