What Makes a Vibrant Community?: Linking Economic Development to Quality of Place in Elkhart County
Friday, October 7, 2016
1:45 p.m. - 3 p.m. EDT
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The Indiana Regional Cities Initiative was launched by the Indiana Economic Development Council to encourage communities to develop vision and action plans that will “attract and retain future generations of Hoosiers.” The initiative will award funding through an $84 million grant program to implement projects in those regional action plans.
The Regional Cities Initiative is what inspired Elkhart County, Indiana, best known as the RV production capital of North America, to launch the Vibrant Communities planning process. With its nation-leading 21% unemployment rate, community leaders recognized that an innovative and multifaceted program was needed. They also believed that long-term economic recovery could not be achieved through market-based solutions alone. Rather, there was a need to foster a sense of pride and feeling of optimism about the future in order to inspire community members to work together for a more prosperous future. In essence, economic recovery needed to be tied directly to quality of place.
Thankfully, in 2011 the Elkhart County Community Foundation was surprised with a $150 million bequest, which increased their annual giving responsibility tenfold. The Foundation committed a third of its giving to “Quality of Place” initiatives, projects which will make the communities of Elkhart County more competitive as destinations for talented individuals.
Through Vibrant Communities, Elkhart County has created an Action Agenda to help guide economic recovery with a strong emphasis on strengthening the things that Elkhart County residents love —from parks and green space, to cultural and arts venues, to neighborhoods and community events—as a catalyst for prosperity. The initiative recognizes that authenticity in the physical environment, and opportunities to animate that environment (through recreation, arts and cultural offerings, etc.) are part of what is going to encourage younger people to stay and to be a part of the local economy. Like many rural places and smaller cities, Elkhart County must not only strive for economic recovery but must ensure wage growth and provide job opportunities especially for the next generation. This must be pursued in tandem with efforts to give younger people positive associations with their community, whether that be ensuring they have a reasonable commuting time between home and work or that they have viable social options for their leisure time.
The Vibrant Communities process has clearly struck a chord in Elkhart County. It has created an incredible “buzz,” drawing over 1,000 residents who have contributed over 5,000 ideas to support the Action Agenda. Leveraging partnerships has been key to the success in getting people involved. Leaders for Vibrant Communities include government agencies, institutions and foundations. The support and buy-in from these entities sent a signal to the community at large—these are big and important problems and they require collaboration and sustained commitment. As the process comes to a close, all signs point to a very promising outcome from this collaboration. The ideas put forth are innovative, yet realistic, recognizing that the opportunities for Elkhart's economic future are multifaceted, and that an integrated approach to physical and economic planning with have tremendously positive impacts throughout the county.
Kyle May, AICP