A ten-county region in northeast Indiana is going to grow its population to a million people! It is going to boost its population growth rate to 2.1% per year (from the current 0.8% per year) until they hit the target. We learn about northeast Indiana’s growth plans from several sources, including Inside Indiana Business and 21-Alive television in Ft. Wayne. The rationale behind the growth strategy was laid out by a local official named Lauren Zuber:
This has really important business implications. If we don’t grow our population, our businesses in the region can’t grow. We need to grow our population so that they have talented employees for the jobs they currently have, that baby boomers are going to retire from, and so that they can hire in new people when they need to expand,” Lauren Zuber, Vision 2020 coordinator said.
A pot of state money is up for grabs, and the “Road to a Million” campaign reflects northeast Indiana’s bid to win a share of it. And I wish them luck. Far be it from me to disapprove a community trying to improve itself. But there are three problems.
The first is that, contrary to the talk, northeast Indiana is slowing down rather than speeding up. Thanks to an excellent resource called STATSIndiana from the Indiana Business Research Center, the population counts for Indiana counties and townships are available for all to see. And there is nothing in the data to justify expectation of a sudden burst of population in northeast Indiana.
Fort Wayne is the region’s major city, and in the past 20 years there was moderate growth around Ft. Wayne. It was most notable in suburban parts of Allen County, including Aboite, Cedar Creek, Lafayette and Perry townships, plus single townships in nearby Adams, Steuben and Lagrange counties. Only these parts of the region grew at the target rate of 2.1% per year, and they only did it from 2000 to 2010. These areas have slowed since 2010. None of them is currently growing at Zuber’s target rate. Meanwhile, 39 northeast Indiana townships have declining populations. In 16 rural townships, there are fewer people now than there were in 1950. (I grew up in one of those, and my relatives still live in another.)
So it seems naive to expect the region to grow at 2.1% just because a plan says it will. The region as a whole has never done this. Only a few parts of the region have ever done it, and they only for brief periods. No part of the region is currently doing it, and several part are moving in the opposite direction.
Of course the reason we have “plans” is to take charge of circumstances and make something happen that wouldn’t happen on its own. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership plan, described here, consists of actions that, if accomplished, will only keep the region in step with other similar regions. Everything in their plan is laudable, but nothing confers any advantage.
The plan confers no advantage because nearly every other community is doing the same thing. As the Red Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass says, “It takes all the running you can do to stay in one place. “ And that’s my second niggle.
In the quoted statement above, Zuber says the region needs to grow so it can grow. The region needs more people, she explains, to work at the additional jobs that don’t exist in the community yet. Fact is, the region today has about 9-thousand fewer jobs than it did in 2006 and has lost several hundred more in 2015.
Economic growth is what happens when a community does everything right. If people are healthy and skilled, if infrastructure is well designed and well maintained, if there is plenty of housing and plenty of opportunities to enjoy life – then growth in population and jobs
will might follow. I don’t have a thing to say against efforts to improve health and enjoyment in a community. But to put the cart before the horse, saying we have to grow so we can grow, is not good social policy. Poor Lauren Zuber is not to blame for overselling a simplistic solution, though. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee are falling over themselves to do the same thing.
The notion that growth is the solution to all problems is fraying at the edges. It was a great solution for a couple of hundred years, but it can’t go on forever. And we’re getting close to the end. Proponents of Steady State Economics offer a road to security and affluence based on stability and sustainability. One of the leaders of this group, Herman Daly, has written: “We are running this planet like a business in liquidation.”
The third criticism I have with northeast Indiana is the evident view of the millennial generation as grist for their mill. Boomers are dying off and Gen Xers are too few to replace them, so the economic developers turn to millennials to bear the yoke. There seems to be no appreciation of millennials as deserving citizens. Nor is there any sense that living amenities are something that 21st century Americans ought to have. Amenities, rather, are merely worms on the hook: “We can only attract and retain talent if we provide art, culture, recreation, etc.”
An article in Governing Magazine from 2012 suggests that communities can build around millennials. The key to doing so is affordable housing and public transportation.
The lesson for me is that even though the window is short, there’s still time for second-tier cities and older suburbs to create the compelling places that will be required to succeed in the 21st-century economy. Most people — even millennials — want to live near their families and near where they grew up, meaning that if you can create interesting places, they’re likelier to stay. And you don’t need the endless hip urban fabric of New York or D.C. to compete. You just need a few great neighborhoods for people to live and work in. For most cities, that’s an achievable goal.
Some cities have managed to achieve the kind of results Ft. Wayne aspires to. Philadelphia has made progress by an organization called Campus Philly that links college information, social life and career counselling. Browsing that site, one gets the impression that Philadelphia appreciates millennials’ own goals and is willing to satisfy them in order to have happy citizens.
Are you listening, northeast Indiana?