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Planning for rural demographics

John Niederman

Elizabeth Duke, who is a governor of the Federal Reserve System, wrote in her Forward to Investing in What Works for America’s Communities that “community development today is a multidisciplinary exercise that challenges us to think holistically about how housing relates to jobs, educational opportunities, transportation, health care, and other services and amenities.”

She goes on the write that community development is an entrepreneurial enterprise and “an ongoing process of identifying and understanding the complicated interaction of people and places.” How true those statements are!

To further complicate our work in building assets for people and communities, we have to constantly balance community engagement and planning work with sustainable enterprise like development of affordable housing that will pay for our soft engagement work.

In her essay in the book, “Community Development in Rural America: Collaborative, Regional, and Comprehensive,” Cynthia Duncan writes that in rural development, human capital is limited and the same leaders play multiple roles. That certainly is the case in Huntington, Indiana, the rural community where our home office is located and where our roots are.

But until recently, a more critical development issue in my town of Huntington, Indiana—and I would proposed in most rural communities—is the lack of urgent community conversations taking place that are guided by a shared understanding of factors that are changing the sustainability of the community for the future.

Recently, the Greater Fort Wayne Business Daily published a column with some sobering statistics. According to the Indiana Business Research Center in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, the number of school age youth in Indiana is estimated to grow by only 2,700 youth a year from now until 2050, while the 65 and older population will grow by 17,700. The growth in the 20-44 age range for Indiana is projected to be only 0.2 percent annually.

In Huntington, our figures have already been troubling, with a 9 percent drop in the 19-and-under age range and a 14 percent drop in 20-44 age range over the last 10 years. In total, we have faced a 23 percent drop in the number of residents who are and will be responsible for future population growth and the intellectual and social talents to foster future leadership for our community.

At the same time, our county has experienced a 16 percent rise in the population 45 and over. Overall, the county experienced a 2.5 percent decline in total population since 2000.

As a community, we have not recognized this slow, but dramatic change happening because no one has taken on the responsibility to do the math and bring together leadership to analyze, plan, and catalyze community assets to turn around the decline.

That began to change 18 months ago. Seeking to expand our practice of comprehensive community development, the organization I lead, Pathfinder Services, asked a group of community leaders to consider applying for a State of Indiana program that adopted the Hometown Competitiveness Model developed by the Heartland Center in Nebraska for rural communities facing our trend lines.

In the past, our community has been through two other visioning/planning processes, which were conducted in a short period of time and produced a long complex report that referred to many ideas, but not deeply rooted for implementation..

What sets this community planning approach apart from those efforts is a phased 24-36 month process that is asset driven and causes any community improvement initiatives proposed to become deeply rooted and backed by a group of organized community champions. This process is organized around five pillars: civic leadership, youth retention and attraction, wealth building, entrepreneurship, and family self-sufficiency.

After nearly a year in assessment and individual conversations with many people and a survey answered by more than 800 people, our planning retreat is going to take place later this fall.

Utilizing the training provided by Rural LISC and NeighborWorks America in comprehensive community development and engagement, our organization has been able to provide conceptual and back office support to the planning efforts.

Our key guiding principles have been:

  • Focus on the social, intellectual, and physical assets of the community that can be deployed and strengthened to create strategies and initiatives to turn around negative trends.
  • Be inclusive in collecting citizen thoughts and feedback to get input from all sectors of the community.
  • Be patient to build the plan on good data and with sufficient conversations to reach consensus and ownership throughout the community.
  • Incorporate the past and current plans and studies while raising up existing community initiatives that are moving the community forward in a positive way.
  • Recognize regional planning efforts and incorporate those strategies and initiatives in our planning efforts.
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate the effort’s progress and vision to unify the community around whichever initiatives are decided upon.

In their book The Abundant Community, John McKnight and Peter Block, who are two of my favorite thinkers in community development, work from the premise that communities can only become abundant again if they recognize the assets of the people living in the community place and connect those assets to serve one another, rather than expecting some outside service organization or government to provide that for them.

What makes our rural county of Huntington so attractive to live in is the attitude of caring that is present in the culture. But what is most concerning is the disconnect of people in the neighborhoods and more critically across the neighborhoods and towns that divide and separate the intellectual and social assets needed to connect for a more sustainable future.

I believe that the future of community development is in sharpening our soft efforts at connecting human assets living a place to take on the entrepreneurial tasks of community sustainability.

Simply improving the physical assets of a place, whether that is housing or industrial/commercial development, without the softer but more important development of intellectual and social assets working together will not be enough for many rural communities facing the trends that our small county is experiencing.

The “how” of connecting people in our social culture today is the entrepreneurial question and takes longer and is more complicated than expected. But it can produce the best results if you can free up the resources to tackle the “how” for the long run.

John Niederman is the president of Pathfinder Services in Huntington, Indiana.


This article is part of a series of essays by community practitioners about ideas from the book Investing in What Works for America's Communities. Click here to see the list of other articles.


Posted in Planning, Rural Community Development, Thinking Out Loud

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