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April 7, 2013

Howard County beating the odds

Area grows despite census predictions.

Unlike every county surrounding it, Howard County is not losing population.

In fact, Howard County bucked a massive trend of population loss sweeping north central and east central Indiana, which has hit cities from Logansport to Richmond hard in recent years.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures released last month, Howard County gained population, if ever so slightly, between 2010 and 2012.

And to Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, the gain of 119 residents is one of the biggest stories of the year.

“One hundred twenty people is not monumental, but the thing is that it’s a positive trend in the right direction, and it beats the predictions,” Goodnight said.

Researchers with the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business predicted that Howard County would lose 201 residents between July 2010 and July 2012.

That assumption was backed by the prior census, which saw Howard County losing more than 2,000 residents between 2000 and 2010.

Somehow, the trend now seems to be going the other way.

Even though 62 Indiana counties lost residents in the two-year period, Howard County saw growth. The county was one of only two counties in the state expected to lose population that actually gained population instead.

Outmigration has slowed to the point where natural increase — having more births than deaths — has begun to grow the population.

It’s not so much that people are moving to Kokomo, said IU associate professor Matthew Kinghorn, but that fewer people are seeing the need to leave.

“I think that Howard County especially has seen a strong rebound in economic performance in the last couple of years,” Kinghorn said. “I think that has a lot to do with Kokomo.”

With Chrysler Group LLC retooling its Kokomo operations and more than 1,200 new jobs expected as a result, it would appear that the City of Firsts will have jobs to offer a growing population.

For the past two years, Kokomo has ranked in the top 10 cities nationally for economic growth, Kinghorn noted. The city has rebounded despite hitting a deep economic “trough” in 2009, when the Chrysler bankruptcy shuttered the plants.

But Goodnight argues the growth in Howard County has as much to do with quality of life factors as it does jobs.

“Jobs help, but I think the bigger picture is that people want to live in a nice place,” Goodnight said.

The fact local schools have taken “positive steps during a transition period in public education,” has also helped, he added.

Ball State University professor Michael Hicks, director of the school’s Center for Business and Economic Research, agreed with Goodnight’s focus on quality of life issues, saying the population growth was significant.

“Howard County could easily be a declining Midwestern county, but has two things distinguishing it,” Hicks said. “First, it has managed to retain its large employers at a time when other places have struggled. More importantly over the long run, Kokomo is clearly pursuing, with great success, a transformative strategy of making itself a desirable place to live. I think the population growth reflects some early success in those efforts. If it is sustained, the real benefits will continue to emerge for some time.”

The challenge for community leaders will be to build on the slight growth of the past two years.

The overall demographic trends in Indiana don’t look good for this part of the state, which is expected to continue to lose population through 2050, according to the Business Research Center.

Baby Boomers are already starting to create a spike in Indiana’s aging trends, so much so that in the 2010 Census, only 10 Indiana counties saw an increase in the 18 to 44 age group.

Kinghorn said the demographics are also being driven by a continued migration toward large urban centers.

When the state is divided into two equal halves — 46 counties which border or contain large metro areas, and 46 “non-metro” counties like Howard — the metro half is expected to grow at roughly the same rate the non-metro half decreases, through at least 2050.

Goodnight is hoping to buck that trend and turn Kokomo into a hub for north central Indiana.

He’s encouraged by the fact some 10,000 people each day commute into Kokomo for work, and then return home after the work day. He’s also encouraged by strategic investments being made at Kokomo’s two hospitals, which are both anticipating Kokomo as a regional hub.

“Keep in mind that not everyone wants to live in a big city. There’s going to be growth in a lot of small and medium-sized cities. But not in every small and medium-sized city,” he said.

“I subscribe to the theory that in the next five to 10 years, there will be three types of cities: Those that make it, those that won’t, and those that could go either way. And what happens will be based on the decisions community leaders make.”

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com.

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