Five years ago, Indiana began taking an important look at its future. Slow population growth had the state concerned about its future economic viability and it knew it needed to do some things differently to spark growth. Eleven regions across the United States were studied and the Regional Cities Initiative was launched to help Indiana capitalize on those lessons learned from those dynamic, growing regions. The end goal, make Indiana communities attractive for new enterprises and for talented workers.
It may still be too early to tell of the Regional Cities program’s impact. Many of the projects are just coming out of the ground. But just two weeks ago, the Census Bureau released its 2017 Population estimates, which gives us a good indicator of the progress Indiana and our area is making. The 2020 Census will be an even more important check-up. Population growth is an important indicator for the state and the communities in it. Communities that aren’t growing are dying.
Indiana is now the 25th fastest-growing state in the country. Fifty-five of Indiana’s 92 counties saw their population grow in 2017, the largest number in more than a decade. The state is growing faster than our Midwest neighbors.
Overall, Indiana grew at .5%. Our metro area was on the plus side though a little slower than the state number, with South Bend-Mishawaka growing at .3% and Elkhart-Goshen growing at .4%. Though there are some encouraging signs in the 2017 numbers, since 2010, the United States has grown at over 5%, Indiana at 2.4% and St. Joseph County at 1.4%.
Several factors influence population growth and decline. Certainly, births and deaths are big factors, but the migration of population is a more important factor and one that communities have a little more influence over. Regional Cities projects are aimed at helping make sure people migrate “to” here instead of “from” here.
What the Regional Cities study showed was that quality of place improvements would help drive population growth. Our local communities have taken that to heart and have major investments planned in parks and recreation, housing, art, public places, and the overall look and feel of the built environment. Much of that early work is focused in the downtowns and will continue to expand out from there.
Those improvements are at times controversial. Taxpayers demand the delivery of essential public services like schools, public safety and road maintenance. Public officials must carefully weigh the demands of both, as each are essential for sustained community growth.
What about the future? The Census Bureau makes population projections going out through 2050. Those projections for St. Joseph County aren’t great. The 2050 estimate is only 207 people more than the 2017 estimate. Though that estimate will keep our area on the positive side of the growth column, that level of growth will leave us well behind our peer communities, the state and the nation.
The Indiana Business Research Center predicts that “just a handful of metropolitan areas will be responsible for most of the state’s population gains in the future.” Our region is positioned to be one of those areas and our Leaders are determined to make sure those 2050 projections don’t come true.
There is a great sense of urgency and a realization that now is the time to capitalize on Indiana’s business climate and efforts to attract new jobs and capital investment. Look for major improvements in the next few years to further position the region to win the battle for talent migration.