This week was the second meeting of the interim study committee on economic development. We set out to find the best ways to attract new business, expand existing ones and promote gainful employment in rural Indiana. This meeting allowed us to speak directly to those with the highest stakes in the matter: the people of rural Indiana.
Did you know that 63 of the 92 counties in Indiana have populations of less than 50,000? Populations in these counties across the state are declining as an increasing number of students go off to college and never return home, in effect, the “Brain Drain”. Students see today’s rural areas as not having the same opportunities they experience at universities or in urban landscapes. However, there are many opportunities for a great life in rural Indiana.
That being said, the Director of Project Development at the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs was present at the meeting to describe what he has found to be barriers to growth. For instance, he explained that rural areas are still reeling from the old economy of agriculture and industrial centers. As technology has evolved, it takes fewer hands to do this kind of work.
In addition, he explained that in order to attract a workforce to these areas, there needs to be a high quality of life. Tax increment financing, or TIF, is a tool that can be used to attract businesses and build a quality of life in these communities. Basically, TIF permits a local unit of government to use increased tax revenues, stimulated by redevelopment, to pay for the capital improvements needed to induce more redevelopment.
A representative from Wabash Economic Development also testified that TIF is the biggest aid to redevelopment in rural Indiana, and he encouraged the committee to endorse it. In fact, he shared that in Wabash, they have raised their per capita income by 12.5 percent in the last three years by effective use of a TIF district. Another key component he said is broadband. Communities that connect their residents create wealth and attract business investments. That is why many have flocked to urban areas where the internet is highly accessible.
One Indiana farmer expressed what she thought was really a quality of life issue. She described the poor conditions of some of the roads in her area and how it simply makes people not want to drive on them, making a real impediment to attracting businesses.
Lastly, we discussed annexation. Municipalities can vote to annex territory in order to provide services, manage growth and enhance the well-being of the people living in the cities and towns they serve. The taxation associated with annexing new areas brings mixed emotions from those being included within the municipal limits. A rural resident of Vanderburgh County explained that Evansville has grown through annexation, but those residents hadn’t been asked to be part of Evansville. Those who were annexed in saw taxes increase significantly. Granted, there are some new services provided when annexation occurs.
In short, annexation can have both positive and negative effects for residents. Often times, while not all the effects are desirable, annexation is still sometimes necessary for economic development. Many in attendance echoed the same thought: annexation should be up to the citizens being annexed and should be voluntary. For instance, they suggested, before being annexed, 51 percent of the property owners should have to vote in favor of annexation.
As you see, we are dealing with some very complex issues and we will continue to do so because economic development and jobs is still the number one issue currently facing our state. The next meeting of this committee will be held on Wednesday September 25 where we will be discussing rental leases and private property matters in regards to defamation. I think that will be an interesting meeting as well. So again, stay tuned, and I will keep you up to date on our work!