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Invisible population decline a threat to Wabash County

Staff Report

Since 1980, the population of Wabash County has been steadily declining and has decreased 5 percent since 2010. In the 11-county northeast Indiana region, Wabash County is the only county with declining population, according to a Monday press release by Patty Grant, executive director of the Community Foundation of Wabash County.

“Population decline in Wabash County has been a real but almost invisible trend when factored against rising income, increasing households and escalating property values. Just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and its potential for detrimental effects is not far off for Wabash County,” stated Rachel E. Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Commissioned by the Community Foundation of Wabash County and Grow Wabash County, Blakeman, with colleagues John Stafford, president of Make No Small Plans and Mark Becker of Becker Consulting presented on Tuesday, July 16 a study of Wabash County’s population decline to an audience of Community Foundation and Grow Wabash County’s board members and Community Development Course participants.

Included in the presentation were qualitative population findings prepared by Amanda Lopez, president of Transform Consulting Group. TCG had conducted several focus groups in Wabash and North Manchester with millennials and others from around the county with the intent to understand the qualities and features impacting residency.

“Continued population decline should be a concern to those invested in Wabash County. The decline impacts K-12 enrollment and the concurrent financial support for local districts. Population loss results in a declining consumer base for retail and professional service providers. Continued loss, particularly in the working-age cohorts results in a shrinking workforce for current and prospective employers,” stated John Stafford, of Make No Small Plans.

The presentation also included a report from Mark Becker, who offers both baseline recommendations to build capacity and strengthen fundamentals, as well as recommendations focused on projects.

The Community Foundation and Grow Wabash County will host Blakeman, Stafford, Becker and Lopez at two dates later in the month to present the population study to the public.

“It is our sincere hope Wabash County citizens will attend the presentation,” stated Steve Hentgen, Community Foundation Board president. “The presentation provides something for everyone to learn and to consider.”

The public is encouraged to attend the first event at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20 in the Honeywell Center, 275 W. Market St. The second event is at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22 at the Manchester Community Schools Administrative Building, 404 W. 9th St., North Manchester.

“The presentation of this important research is only one of a multi-step process the Community Foundation and our partner, Grow Wabash County are taking in response to a leadership challenge from Lilly Endowment Inc, who encourages to all Indiana counties to address the challenges and opportunities they face. The Endowment in October 2018 announced the seventh phase of its Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow (GIFT) initiative. Phase Seven, a $125 million initiative, includes both matching and leadership funding opportunities and affords all Indiana communities the opportunity to submit in 2020 a concept paper for up to $5 million in funding to implement large-scale initiatives aimed at high priority quality of life challenges and opportunities,” stated Grant. “With the planning and implementation grant funding from Lilly Endowment GIFT Phase VII, we seek to learn about trends and provide opportunities for community voices to be heard, and thoughts and perspectives shared. The Community Development Course and the study of our population decline are important first steps.”

For more information regarding the meetings, contact the Community Foundation of Wabash County 260-982-4824 or Grow Wabash County 260-563-5258.