The arrival of the Christmas and New Year’s Day holiday season brought with it three substantial gifts for people who work and live in Southwest Central Indiana. They came in the form of grants from the Lilly Endowment Inc. that totaled $42 million — all for initiatives aimed at boosting the region’s economy.
One will direct $25.8 million to a new non-profit organization known as Regional Opportunity Initiatives Inc., an affiliate of the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, which will implement an education and workforce plan, as well as a regional development fund. A second grant of $16.2 million will launch an Applied Research Institute near Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane. The institute initially will be led by advisers that include Crane representatives, as well as research universities throughout Indiana and other corporate and institutional partners.
The third grant, by comparison, is far less than the other two — just $122,600. Yet its potential for Hoosiers who live in predominately rural areas is immeasurable. This money, directed to the Indiana University Foundation, will be used to examine the feasibility of establishing a “Rural Center of Excellence” at Indiana University to study and address the societal challenges that our rural communities face.
Each of these initiatives — including the rural center — emerged from a 2014 report by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice and align with recommended strategies to advance the economic development of our region. Within the conclusions of that report, it was noted that a rural center of excellence could “advance a sense of regionalism” by using the unique expertise that IU carries in international development, public policy and health policy — and applying such skills and knowledge in our own backyard.
In the past, this “sense of regionalism” has been hindered by the lack of safe and efficient highways that link key cities throughout Southwest Central Indiana — and facilities such as NSWC Crane — to other parts of the state. However, the recent completion of Interstate 69 linking Evansville and NSWC Crane to Bloomington removes that obstacle.
With a new highway in place that better connects the region, our next urgent priority is workforce development. This starts with improved health and wellness throughout the region, which in turn will yield benefits in education and training. That is what the rural center is envisioned to do.
What would such a center look like? At the moment, no one knows for certain. But in a summary of the Battelle report’s findings, it was envisioned as coordinating numerous regional resources with a focus on health-related issues, the long-term socioeconomic issues of rural development and the preservation of our nation’s rural identity in order to analyze and solve the many issues that rural Americans face.
The need to address rural health disparities is of particular concern. The Lilly Endowment views rural health as a vital component to the overall growth and well being of Southwest Central Indiana. In providing this grant, it has expressed confidence that IU can use its schools, faculty and students — particularly within the School of Public Health or the School of Public and Environmental Affairs — to study and evaluate needs and propose long-term solutions that will raise the overall quality of life in the region.
Additional issues could command the center’s attention as well. Challenges such as affordable housing, senior citizen engagement, poverty, generational unemployment, substance abuse, education policy, educational attainment, literacy, beautification and redevelopment of downtown areas are but a few.
By having a rural center of excellence in place, Southwest Central Indiana could serve as an experimental “test bed” of innovative solutions and, in time, become known as one of the nation’s most progressive rural areas. Our region could gain such a reputation by working to improve its “quality of place” at a time when similar regions face economic and social decline.
But for now, these are just possibilities. Before they become reality, factors such as who would fund such a center must be addressed. Would it be IU? Lilly? A combination of the two? Additional outside parties? All of these considerations and more must be weighed. Over the next year, the IU Foundation will proceed with this task, using this Lilly Endowment gift to work with regional officials in trying to determine what form a rural center ultimately should take and how it would function.