Welcome Valley Grads and Friends of the Akron / Mentone Communities

Two thirds of 8000 alumni of Tippecanoe Valley -- and the schools that created it -- no longer live in the school district. This blog is intended to keep us all connected, to news of our hometowns and of each other.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sobering numbers ...

A week ago I wrote about Rochester’s “Stellar Communities” bid, to be one of two Indiana communities to be awarded significant grant funds from three different state agencies. (You can read that here.)

It was an intriguing and well-done presentation, and everyone still has their fingers crossed. But one particular slide from their power-point presentation really caught my attention, for a different reason.

A slide entitled “Fulton County Economic Climate” compared Fulton County to the Indiana average and the national average in seven different economic indicators, and few of them were favorable.

Unemployment in Fulton County is 12.2%, compared to 10.1% in Indiana and 9.0% nationally.

While the rest of America grew in population by 8.3% and Indiana by 5.6% from 2000-2009, Fulton County actually lost population, by 1.2%. As everyone knows, it is the young people who are leaving. The average age of a Fulton County resident, 40.2, is almost 4 years above the national average. That translates to a workforce with a relatively smaller number of wage-earners and a relatively larger number of retirees on fixed income.

Only 80.2% of Fulton County adults are high school graduates, compared to 82% in Indiana and 86.7% nationally. Only 10.3% of Fulton County adults have 2- or 4-year college degrees, compared to 19.4% in Indiana and 29.5% nationally.

Given that composition of the workforce, it is not surprising that Fulton County’s income trails that of the state and nation. Median household income in Fulton County is about 92% of the national average, $45,964 to $50,221. The gap in per capita income is even greater -- $30,387 to $40,166. Obviously, Fulton County residents are more likely than most Americans to live in two-income households. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

And lower-than-average income isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the cost of living is equally low. Certainly, the low cost of labor in Indiana is one of the “selling points” that the Indiana Economic Development Corporation touts in attempting to attract investment in our state.

Regardless, numbers like this point out how challenged all rural communities are these days. And these numbers are for all of Fulton County, and so include the physicians at Woodlawn Hospital and the other professionals concentrated in Rochester. Surely the number for the two Fulton County townships – and the four townships in Kosciusko County -- that feed into Tippecanoe Valley lag even further behind national averages in some of these key indicators.

I share these numbers with my friends from Valley not to beat anyone up or paint a picture of despair, but to illustrate a reality that our friends and former neighbors are facing. Rochester’s “Stellar Communities” presentation had to strike a balance, between the pride and enthusiastic boosterism of those in the room, and making the case that Fulton County needs this grant to make these improvements.

That single power point slide contained a lot of sobering information about how different the economic realities are for small town and rural communities. When 50% of Americans live in the 52 cities of a million or more, and 30% live in cities between 25,000 and 999,999, it becomes possible for the mere 20% who live where we grew up to become outliers, who's situation doesn't fit the "norm" which public policy addresses. We can't let that be the case.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rochester is a Finalist for Multi-million Dollar Prize

Yesterday, I attended a presentation in Rochester where several Fulton county organizations, led by the Fulton Economic Development Corporation (FEDCO) and their able executive Terry Lee, made a pitch to representatives of several state agencies that Rochester be named one of two “Stellar Communities” in Indiana. It’s a designation that would come with some significant dollars.

“Stellar Communities” is a program through which three agencies – the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Department of Transportation, and the Housing and Community Development Authority – are pooling some of their available grant-making budgets, and encouraging cities and towns to compete for those funds by developing comprehensive, complementary plans for community revitalization. The idea is that ever-more-scarce state dollars will get a better return on investment by being focused on a few – this year, two – communities where the dollars can make a transformational difference, rather than being scattered haphazardly across 92 counties. And Rochester’s proposal survived the first cut, from 42 applications to 12.

So why am I posting about it on the Valley Alumni blog? Well, as Karen Drone from the Akron Area Arts League said during the public Q&A session, for most of the 14,000 Fulton County residents who don’t live in the Rochester city limits, Rochester is still “our community” too when it comes to shopping, entertainment, and many professional, non-profit, and governmental services.

More to the point, these particular state dollars aren’t going to towns the size of Akron and Mentone this year, anyway. But state-funded improvements to Rochester’s infrastructure may well generate not only quality-of-life opportunities, but eventually jobs, that will benefit people in Akron and the countryside.

The presentation was punctuated by a well-done five-minute video featuring Rochester residents and property owners speaking on location (and a recurring group of school children, standing at various busy intersections and shouting “Sidewalks here would be stellar!”).

What Rochester’s leadership told the state agencies was, with a few million dollars in state funds over the next three years to match local funds and letters of commitment from a number of individual property owners, here’s what they would do:

• renovate an empty, 15,000 s.f. building on three-story on Main Street and turn it into a business incubator for start-up businesses.
• Renovate the Times Theater, including restoring the old vaudeville-era stage behind the movie, so the building can serve as a performing arts venue as well as a movie theater; and turn an adjacent empty storefront into an art gallery.
• Extend the Nickel Plate Trail (a recently-completed rails-to-trails project that extends from the south edge of Rochester almost to Kokomo) all the way to downtown; and add a number of sidewalk projects linking neighborhoods to the trail, the southside commercial district, and the high school.
• Implement a downtown streetscape project to restore storefronts and add pedestrian street lighting and landscaping to Main Street.
• Provide matching grants to downtown property owners to assist in the upfront cost of converting second floor spaces into modern residential space.

It is easy to look at the architectural renderings of these improvements and imagine how, once they are made, Rochester will be a much more attractive place for a business to locate or expand. I’m particularly interested in the potential of the business incubator to help launch some service-industry businesses (software, marketing, consulting) that could be providing internship opportunities for Valley students within a year or two. (Okay, some Rochester and Caston students would be welcome, too, I’m sure.)

Of course, there are only going to be two “winners” in this competition. One question the state funders asked Rochester’s presenters was, what if you don’t get these grants? And of course, the answer is that the community will have to prioritize these projects, and implement the ones that can be implemented with local resources on a more gradual scale. Forty-two other communities that applied for this process are also doing the same calculation … which in theory will give them all a clearer focus for setting priorities within their strategic plans, whether they get this money or not.

But the fact remains that this kind of state support is going to only two communities this year. Federal and state assistance for rural communities is going to get increasingly scarce. Indiana’s state legislature won’t be approving any budget increases for the next two years, and Community Development Block Grants were one of the few programs that were reduced in the federal budget proposal that the President released this week. I hope Rochester gets this award; but for the most part, waiting on Indianapolis or Washington to save the day is not going to be a rewarding strategy. We're going to have take matters into our own hands. And that's one of the reasons I started this blog.

I’m in the middle of a larger piece on how Akron has managed to be ahead of the curve in a lot of revitalization efforts among communities its size, leveraging a lot of volunteerism and private support. For the good of the communities like the ones we grew up in, we’re all going to have to get a better understanding of what has worked, and do more of it…

Sunday, February 6, 2011

35 years ago this weekend ...

Thirty-five years ago this weekend, we had a blizzard.

Valley also hosted the first-ever sectional in the first-ever girls' basketball state tournament. We had a pretty good team (13-5?) but had to open against Warsaw, the undefeated number one team in the state.

The whole tournament got pushed back a couple of days, moving the semifinals to Saturday night; and as another storm rolled in, a lot of people (including some of our own players, and me, who had to be pulled out of a snowdrift on 800 South by Jackie Brown's dad) had trouble getting to the school.

Coach Joyce Harmon called a time-out less than a minute into the game in order to insert regular starting point guard Sharlene Bose -- who arrived via snowmobile a few seconds after tip-off -- into the game, in order to orchestrate the slow-down game plan that was our key to matching up with the bigger and (frankly) more talented undefeated Tigers.

And Sharlene did it masterfully. Our star sophomore and future Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Cathy Welch played Miss Basketball Judi Warren to a draw. Dee Wirick matched Warsaw's towering front line, including future Miss Basketball Chanda Kline, rebound for rebound. We held on to a slim lead until early in the fourth quarter. Warsaw finally got ahead by a couple of baskets, forced us out of the zone and the stall, and pulled away by forcing us to foul in the closing minute.

Warsaw went on to complete an undefeated season and win the first girls' state championship. Valley provided them as tough a challenge as they received the whole way. I've since learned to be proud of a team in a loss, but this was my first experience at it, and I still feel that way.

It's fun to remember the victories, but what was the proudest you've ever been of a losing effort?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Idea Behind This Blog

Our hometowns are typical of the majority of communities in Indiana and the Midwest .  They still have their charms, virtues, and assets, but they are not growing.   Declining populations and tax bases make it increasingly difficult for small towns to provide young people the same opportunities that many of us received thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago.

Most of us have great affinity for the communities where we grew up -- not just the schools themselves, but the friends and family and teammates, the workplaces and churches and parks and lakes where we learned to interact with others.  Many of us who have moved away and become engaged in our new communities would still give back to our hometowns in some way ... if we were only asked. 

We estimate that there are 5000 graduates and former students of Tippecanoe Valley, and another 3000 living graduates of Akron and Mentone High Schools, living in about 7000 households.

Our research suggests that about a third  of these families still live in the school district; another third of them now live in Rochester or Warsaw, and the last third have moved further away – more than likely out of state.  

We have begun to implement a communications plan designed to cultivate our nearby and distant alumni with the intent to re-engage them as contributors to local educational, economic development, and philanthropic efforts. 

Education.  Our alumni can be mentors and e-mentors, and providers of internship opportunities for high school students, and volunteers for early education enrichment activities; they can recruit and serve as guest instructors for continuing/adult education programs.

Economic Development.  Our alumni can be advisors and mentors to local entrepreneurs;  ambassadors/recruiters/scouts for local businesses, chambers of commerce, and economic development corporations; and angel investors. A few might even be looking for the right opportunity to start or bring a business back home. 

Philanthropy.   Our alumni can be donors to an annual appeal to create both a permanent and a revolving fund with the local community foundation, using the “Giving Circle” model, to make grants for special projects at the schools and elsewhere within the community.   Eventually, we can be prospects for planned gifts.   Why wouldn’t the community in which some of us spent the first 20 years of our lives be a candidate, along with the college where we spent four, for being one of the entities we remember in our estate planning?