Things are getting better in Daviess County. That appears to be the findings of the Community Asset Inventory and Rankings put together by the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research. The Asset Inventory is the second conducted by Ball State for the Indiana Communities Institute. The first was done in 2012 and aims to provide concrete, easy-to-use data for communities to consider when they look at development and improvement.

“I want the Indiana (communities) to look at themselves and understand themselves in a way that allows them to focus on what they’re good at and understand that, and then see what they’re not as good at and make adjustments,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State.

Hicks says communities lacked real data and that limited their ability to make informed policy decisions and to carry out community development. Instead he says almost every county Chamber of Commerce website states their county is “a great place to raise a family and has great schools,” even when that isn’t always the case.

The researchers began gathering data and put it into seven categories: People, which included information of population growth, poverty rates and unemployment rates; Health of Human Capital and Workforce which focused on fertility rates, death rates, premature death rates and poor and fair health rates; Education of Human Capital and Workforce with data on the percent of students who passed ISTEP English and math, degrees earned and high school graduation rates; Government Impact and the Economy, including crime rate, tax rates, main street rates and metropolitan development; Arts, Entertainment and Recreation that was determined by per capita personal income, employment per 1,000 people, average compensation per employee, as well as the number of marinas, fairground, athletic fields and golf courses; Changeable Public Amenities including public parks, historic and cultural sites, fishing and boating areas, camping or RV parks, hiking/walking trails, beaches and school grounds; and State and Public Amenities that included forest, fish and wildlife areas as well as dedicated nature preserves, bodies of water and shore lines.

The latest study also included data regarding the safety and livability of neighborhoods as well as the quality of local schools to create a housing value barometer.

“It really forces thoughtful communities to have a conversation,” said David Terrell, executive director for the Indiana Communities Institute. “When it first comes out, some individuals in communities react with shock at some of the findings, and then you see some really thoughtful discussions taking place about what that means and what we can do to make that better. It really kind of sets a course for a different kind of conversation in communities, and the key to that is acknowledging and readiness for change.”

When comparing the findings of 2012 and 2018 in Daviess County, all of the metrics either improved or remained the same. The community grade on People went from a C to a B. The grade for Health remained at a C. Education went from a D to a C-. Arts, Entertainment and Recreation stayed at a C. The Changeable Public Amenities improved from and 4 to a 3, and the State Public Amenities remained at a 1. The Home Value was ranked slightly below the state average and officials called the housing market recovering in the area.

While the report is a long way from ideal, local community leaders found some positives in it. “Our results are headed in the right direction,” said Bryant Neihoff, executive director for the Daviess County Economic Development Corporation. “This really reflects a lot of hard work by Daviess County over the last several years. Improvements in these areas just don’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of work to move the needle so that the changes are noticeable.”

Neihoff says the work in Daviess County began around 15 years ago following a community survey that found most people in Washington were pessimistic about their future and the opportunities they have. From that point on community leaders and government officials began an active campaign to reverse that perception and build opportunities.

“Daviess County has had fantastic results,” said Neihoff. “Once we found out where we were then we could work on where we wanted to be. This study shows we are making inroads. We are seeing progress, and this gives us a map on how to allocate our resources in the future.”

Daviess County has been doing some introspection and self-study recently, and the results of the Ball State study in some ways reflect the local findings.

“We have recently been working on a plan to work on many of the same areas through a planning grant we received from the Regional Opportunities Initiative,” said Samantha Bobbitt, executive director for the Daviess County Chamber of Commerce. “We had a Quality of Life and Action Team meeting where we gathered Daviess County influencers. We also convened two town hall meetings to try to gauge the public’s input. We assessed what we believed to be the areas of concern in our community. In comparing the areas we discussed and this report I would have to agree with the grading scale and where we fall. We know that we have many different areas that we can work on to make Daviess County a better place to live, work and play.”

Bobbitt says one of the biggest struggles for Daviess County is providing adequate affordable housing. One area identified as a major problem with area residents is housing. “We maintain a list of landlords in our office to give to people who are looking for housing,” she said. “Every day we have people requesting the list and finding we have very little to choose from. Along with Daviess County Economic Development, we will be creating a housing focus group to gather those key players that can help us identify barriers to creating housing. The group will be kicked off with a luncheon. We know from an ROI housing study and a study done by Purdue that we need housing in every area from rentals and single family $50,000 homes up to the $150,000 to $200,000 home.”

Hicks and Terrell say that as the overall economy improved, some communities began to adjust their approach to developing their communities and are taking a different approach to economic development.

“The traditional thinking was, well the best way to get population growth is we just need to grow more jobs, and if we have more jobs, more people will come to our community, and the research doesn’t show that,” Terrell said. “The research shows that people are attracted to the communities that have good schools and good amenities, and people are going to move to where they want to live and the companies and the jobs are going to follow the people.”

The study authors say that communities should not approach the study as any kind of failure, but instead they should consider it a way to make improvements.

“Sometimes when you see things like letter grades, people kind of fall back into this mindset of, ‘We’re doing everything wrong.’ I think there are two things we need to think about,” Terrell said. “The data is longitudinal, and a lot of it takes a lot of hard work to get, so it could be that communities are doing a lot of things right — your programs are in place, but it’s just the data hasn’t moved yet.”

No matter what grade a county is assigned, however, Hicks said he hopes everyone understands that “every community can get better,” and while it is a “difficult, long-term process,” the results of this study should help each community set real goals.

CNHI assisted in this story.

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