Alleys of devastation

July 2, 2009
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Plenty of stories have been published and aired in recent days about migration patterns in Indiana. People in the early part of the century are moving to the Indianapolis suburbs, particularly Fishers, Noblesville, Greenwood and Carmel, the Indiana University study showed.

Overlooked in the coverage are the swaths of the state that keep losing population.

The biggest swath runs from Richmond in eastern Indiana toward Chicago. It’s largely the U.S. 35 corridor that once boasted a sophisticated mastery of the industrial revolution. Richmond, Anderson, Muncie, Marion and other towns hosted factories churning out products as diverse as school buses, cars, transmissions and television screens.

In most cases, companies headquartered outside the state ran the plants into the ground and then pulled out, says Morton Marcus, an economist who formerly headed IU’s Indiana Business Research Center. One exception is Chrysler’s ongoing investment in Kokomo.

The other major “alley of devastation,” as Marcus calls it, starts at Terre Haute and runs south toward Evansville. The area used to be pockmarked with coal mines and thousands of jobs that, like manufacturing, paid well for the level of formal education required.

Points of light glimmer in these areas, but they’re small. Among other victories, Marion has landed a plastics company to take over part of the TV screen plant abandoned by Thomson Consumer Electronics. Coal country might see new life if clean-coal technologies are accepted.

Otherwise, odds of revitalization are slim, says Marcus, who is familiar with the woes as a result of his travels throughout the state. The areas should double down on school quality in hopes people will move back to take advantage of cheap housing, he says.

“These communities need to find ways to make themselves more attractive. The best we can hope for is stability, to stop the decline.”

Bummer of an outlook. But is it realistic? Do you see anything that might bring back these once-thriving areas?

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  • Here's the problem with most of Indiana: no money for young
    entrepreneurs and no ambition. Making your community more
    attractive might attract a few bucks, but if your want long term
    growth, you have to find a way to grow local businesses owned
    by local business people. Otherwise you are doomed to run on
    the tax abatement treadmill where you get a new facility, collect no
    taxes, and then the either leave, close or sell out before the abatement
    ends.

    Which gets to the real issue: Hoosiers need to stop gambling on horses
    and start gambling on business start ups. We actually might win from time to time.

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