Graduate students with IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs culminated a semester-long study of economic challenges in southwest central Indiana with a Tuesday presentation of their findings.
Under the direction of visiting lecturer Frank Nierzwicki, students examined the benefits of creating a “rural center of excellence” at Indiana University, created a marketing strategy to boost regional tourism and devised a plan to improve the region’s workforce. The region includes Brown, Crawford, Davies, Dubois, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen and Washington counties, where more than half the population lives in rural areas.
A six-person team devoted to the rural center partnered with IU’s Office for Engagement to produce its findings. Tourism and workforce teams of six to eight students each worked with Radius Indiana, an economic development partnership that represents eight of the region’s 11 counties.
“The students’ efforts to research and catalog the resources that could be deployed to address rural development challenges will further our work to leverage IU’s capabilities to benefit the Indiana economy. These graduate students have made a great contribution to our efforts to improve the quality of life in southwest central Indiana.”
— Kirk White, assistant vice president, IU Office for Engagement
Nierzwicki has more than 30 years of urban planning and professional government experience. In prior years, his students worked on downtown revitalization in Mitchell, trail development in Bedford and planning and zoning issues in Lawrence County. Completion of the course concludes students’ studies toward their master’s degree in public affairs.
“We live and study in the region this project serves. It is rewarding to contribute to the economic vitality of our hometowns. Now comes the challenge of turning good ideas into reality and we’re eager to help with that process.”
— Frank Nierzwicki, visiting lecturer, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs
Rural center of excellence
The idea for a “rural center of excellence” at IU Bloomington originated from a 2014 economic development study by the Batelle Technology Partnership Practice.
About 55 percent of southwest central Indiana residents live in rural areas compared to 21 percent nationally and 27 percent statewide. In turn, the region lacks adequate resources to address issues such as public health disparities, job training that promotes industrial growth and low educational attainment. According to U.S. Census figures, more than 30 percent of Americans over age 25 hold a bachelors degree, compared to 22.5 percent of Hoosiers.
The students identified several areas of emphasis that a rural center — in concert with numerous initiatives at IU Bloomington — could focus on to help improve the region’s economy and quality of life. They include health care; STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) and education; business and rural cooperatives; technology; and additional areas such as energy, environmental issues and agriculture-based funding.
Tourism and workforce
Regional economic developers often describe southwest central Indiana as the “hot spot” of the state’s tourism industry. Although many Hoosiers are familiar with its numerous parks, wetlands, forests and other activities, such amenities are not as well known outside the state. To address the issue, SPEA students designed a marketing strategy aimed at external and internal audiences.
SPEA students also focused on maximizing the effectiveness of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development’s WorkOne network. Although it offers a well-established system of employment resources, not enough residents take advantage of such offerings.