Don’t overlook our rural communities

May 1st, 2017

Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly | Indiana Economic Digest

A church is closing in Wawaka.

Those who grew up there joke that, if you blink while driving through Noble County, you could miss the rural community entirely.

At the center of the unincorporated community are the grain bins of Frick Services, with a storage capacity of 1.7 million bushels. The U.S. Postal Service still operates an office there, with limited hours.

Social interactions among neighbors typically take place around the baseball field or the Wawaka United Methodist Church.

But, on May 7, after more than 150 years in the community, the church is closing its doors. Having only 15 people attending Sunday service makes sustainability difficult.

The church closing is a result of a dwindling population. But the situation in Wawaka is one that is all too similar to other communities in northeast Indiana.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has some lofty goals for population increases — a 2 percent annual growth. But, the growth rate in 2015 was 0.4 percent, according to an analysis of census data by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

We’ve all heard the pitch that higher wages and a more attractive quality of place are needed to attract people to the region. And work is underway to improve this — but mainly in our city centers.

General economic principals say we need to keep growing to survive but we can’t deny the shifting dynamic of our regional landscape. Our extremely small towns and unincorporated areas are losing people.

While reversing this trend isn’t something that can happen overnight, we can’t deny what is currently occurring.

We need to take a look at how losing small communities affects the overall region. Does it matter? How important are the Wawakas to our local makeup?

We don’t purport to know the answers, but we do think that as the region supports grand projects in our city centers, we must also be cognizant about what’s happening in our rural communities — the ones in the middle of a corn field. They and their residents are important too.