This column previously appeared on Inside Indiana Business

April 9, 2024

The Site Selection magazine headline recently summed it up: “When Being Small Is a Big Advantage.” Over the past four or so years, rural America has experienced an unexpected and remarkable growth trend. As the magazine noted, “record inflation, remote working, rising big-city crime, and lifestyle changes are prompting Americans to relocate from large urban cores.”

What does this mean for Indiana? Depending on how one defines “rural,” about one million Hoosiers today enjoy life away from large urban areas. They like—even prefer—the quality of life and opportunities that come from living in or near cities and towns such as Vincennes in Knox County.

But to maintain quality of life and critical infrastructure like quality healthcare, childcare, housing, and educational opportunities, rural Hoosiers must face and overcome a diverse set of challenges. Tailoring and adapting strategies for rural economic development is vital.

In fact, one could make the case that the development deck is often stacked in favor of larger urban areas. Even with a regional economic development focus, rural areas often face situations where they must make do with reduced resources.

Identifying and overcoming the challenges of rural economic development can be achieved. In my experience, here are some vital considerations.

Not a monolithic solution

To successfully meet these challenges, one must appreciate that rural Indiana represents a unique patchwork of different landscapes and economic environments. There exists no monolithic, “one-size-fits-all” solution for sustained economic and workforce development.

The Hoosier rural landscape reflects diverse economies, abundant natural resources, and unique cultural heritage. These remarkable elements deserve investment and support, though sometimes it’s a challenge to match up resources with opportunities.

Infrastructure and connectivity

The very nature of the rural lifestyle often presents a natural inhibitor: limited access. Today in southern Indiana many anticipate the final connection of I-69 from Evansville to Indianapolis and beyond. But when I first started this career in economic development – which wasn’t very long ago – few believed the I-69 corridor would be planned and built during their lifetimes.

While it may not be intentional, rural roads, bridges, and public transit – all essential for economic growth – often reside at the bottom of the food chain for government rural policy. The same has been true regarding high-speed digital connectivity, but we’re optimistic that a renewed fiber development light signals an end of that connectivity tunnel in rural areas.

Capital Access

To start or grow a company requires access to capital. Years ago, people in rural areas looked to local community banks. As bank mergers have become commonplace, larger non-local financial institutions sometimes are hesitant to address or accept the perceived risks potentially inherent to a rural location. The same is often true of government-run or government-supported economic development capital and investments, where the trend exists to fund opportunities in larger regions with dense populations.

The public-private partnership model has served to counter this trend, but challenges remain. Limited capital access can still inhibit great ideas and efforts by Hoosier entrepreneurs, potentially limiting innovation. But there is some good news here.

Like many other areas in Indiana, Knox County is fortunate to have a business incubator and accelerator. The Pantheon, a converted theatre in downtown Vincennes, is quickly building a remarkable track record. A number of innovations are growing there, including the recent AgroRenew bioplastic company that holds strong promise. Rural Indiana needs more Pantheons.

Workforce and talent attraction

The availability of talent represents a universal challenge in today’s economy. But workforce attraction and retention hold a different, often difficult, challenge in rural areas of Indiana.

Many areas of rural Indiana, including Knox County, are home to manufacturing operations that are workforce intensive. The availability of talent – qualified workers or residents who can undergo vocational training – represents a major consideration for companies to achieve growth. This same consideration also creates the strategic basis for attracting a new company to relocate or expand in a rural region.

The availability of quality housing also continues to be a challenge for all, but especially in rural regions. It is unfortunately a too-common instance where companies in rural areas open and interview for positions, and then the successful candidates face complicated challenges in finding a place to call home.

Connected to this is the ongoing task of securing and making available appropriate childcare resources. Many of these issues limit rural growth opportunities and investments, and novel support programs are required to hurdle these gaps. Healthcare accessibility – especially prenatal and obstetrics – weaves into this, as far too many Hoosier counties are medically underserved.

Rural life offers excellent opportunities to settle and raise families for the next generation. To seize and maximize these opportunities, initiatives at the state and local levels must come together to fully address the unique challenges our rural communities face.

I believe the prospects for rural Indiana are improving and encourage our state and regional leaders to consider how a renewed focus on rural solutions can take us to the next level. Adopting a vision to truly seize the rural advantage will reap great rewards.

A long-time economic development and defense industry professional, Chris Pfaff is Chief Executive Officer of Knox County Indiana Economic Development