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Bikers hit the trail and cross the bridge after the Nickel Plate trail bridge was officially opened on Friday, June 29, 2018. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

Howard County’s report card this spring would make any parent unhappy.

The county’s quality-of-life was graded alongside Indiana’s 91 other counties in a study released by Ball State University showing how communities changed from 2012 to 2018 in areas ranging from people and public amenities to government impact and economy.

The report – released by researchers at BSU’s Center for Business and Economic Research – provided grades and rankings meant to “assess the quality of life and economic conditions inside each Indiana county.”

The rankings that worsened in Howard County included: arts, entertainment and recreation (B to B-); human capital, education (B to D); and human capital, health (C to D).

Researchers compiled the grades on a curve, meaning that for each category an equal number of A and F grades and an equal number of B and D grades were given across the state. Average performers received C grades.

Howard County quality of life grades

Michael Hicks, director of Ball State CBER, could not be reached for comment, but he described the report in an interview with Fox59.

“It’s like a report card,” said Hicks. “We want communities to understand that you’re not just an overall A or an overall F, that you could be very good in some areas and very bad in others. That will give you an idea where your strength and weaknesses lie.”

Within arts, entertainment and recreation, the report cited factors like income and compensation, along with employment figures and the amount of fairgrounds, athletic fields and golf courses within a county – even marinas. Also tallied was the amount of “accommodation and food services per capita income.”

Education, meanwhile, was decided by looking at the percent of students who passed the ISTEP English and math sections, as well as educational attainment and high school graduation rates.

Finally, the health grade includes a litany of factors related to physical and mental health, along with access to healthy food and medical care.

Even before BSU’s report, Howard County’s poor health was no secret.

Other rankings, released in March by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, showed the county is one of the least healthy counties in Indiana.

Howard County was ranked 80th out of Indiana’s 92 counties in health outcomes, which measure how long people live and how healthy they feel. It finished 81st in health factors, based on behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment.

The life expectancy in Howard County was listed at 74.8 years, compared to 77.1 across Indiana. The life expectancy for black residents was 73, compared to 75 for white residents and 84 for Hispanic people.

Meanwhile, Howard County ranked 90th in health behaviors, finishing worse than the state average in smoking, physical inactivity, access to exercise opportunities, teen births and alcohol-impaired driving deaths.  

However, public officials say more time is needed to properly measure the effect of things like boosted membership at a new YMCA, increased trail access and a county-wide smoking ban passed in 2017.

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight called six years a “short window” that is worth measuring but cannot yet quantify efforts made to shift the local mindset.  

“Those are long-term investments. Changing the culture takes a while,” said Goodnight.

Taking a similar stance was Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman.

“When you start putting in place a new YMCA, smoking ordinance, trails, it takes time for that to convert into actual results that you can see,” said Wyman, acknowledging there is still “a tremendous amount of work” for the county to do to boost its overall health.

“But I think we’ve taken those positive steps during the time period when this study was done so the next study will reflect much better for us.”

In the report, education and health are cited as important workforce considerations that can affect whether companies decide to expand or relocate to a community.

About the education drop-off, Wyman offered a theory about the changes ushered in by a strengthened economy and its possible effects on educational attainment.

“I think people can graduate high school right now and go get a great job at Chrysler, or they can graduate and go get a good job somewhere because the unemployment rate’s so low that they’re going to get hired because companies need people,” he said.

“And when companies need people, sometimes the education gets put on the back-burner, right or wrong.”

While Indiana University Kokomo has seen record enrollment in recent years, Ivy Tech Kokomo has seen its numbers drop since the Great Recession.

Some Howard County schools, however, faced academic challenges during the BSU report’s time period, including struggles cited by the Indiana Department of Education, which could have affected the education grade.  

Howard County’s grades in the Ball State study did improve in two areas: government impact and economy (F to C) and people (D- to D).

Impacting the government/economy score was a mix of factors including crime and tax rates, main street rate and metropolitan development; while the people grade tallied population growth, poverty and unemployment rates, and revenues for private foundations and nonprofits.

Wyman credited public-private partnerships involving city and county government – the latest example is the downtown hotel and conference center – for boosting the government/economy score.

“I don’t think the study has picked up on the benefit of all those items yet,” he said. “I think it recognizes them, because we got an increase in that grade, and now the next three, four, five years I think we’ll see improvements in all those other areas as a result of the work we’ve done.”

For changeable public amenities – included are parks, trails, cultural sites and other things that can be changed – Howard County saw its score dip slightly, although it remained with a score of 102, above the average score of 100.

However, the county’s static public amenities – things like bodies of water and forests – remained well below average, with a score of 79.

Another part of the report, its housing value barometer, assessed the changing price and quality of housing in each county. The report used data from Zillow to capture “both the change in price of existing housing stock and the effect of new, higher quality housing stock.”

Howard County was listed as “recovering,” falling into a graph quadrant depicting a “scenario where the growth in home prices is higher than the state average growth, despite their recent home values being lower than the state.”

“All in all, I think it’s probably a fair assessment,” said Goodnight, describing the entire report. “I think you have to look at it as the old saying: Look at challenges as opportunities.”

Those challenges include attracting residents with high educational attainment and good physical health, as well as retaining healthy residents and giving others the opportunity to become healthier.

“How you do that is by building that environment that makes it very natural to live a healthy lifestyle and have things within walking distance and access to trails, and making sure those trails are lit and nice and they’re accessible all the time,” noted Goodnight.

Unsurprising is the continued success of counties in the Indianapolis metro area, which are the fastest-growing in the state.

But Goodnight, who said state government shouldn't be let off the hook for struggles seen across communities outside the Indy metro area, believes Kokomo and Howard County’s proximity to Indianapolis “keeps us in the game.”

One way to increase the connectivity with Indy’s metro area, he said, is for Howard County’s five school systems to schedule athletic events and other activities with schools located in the donut area around the capital.

While Kokomo understands how close those communities are – and how easy U.S. 31 has become to navigate – it’s vital to remind their residents the same is true for a trip to the north.

“So not only are we going down there but more importantly we’re getting them to come up here and experience the positive things we have going on here in Howard County,” remarked Goodnight, noting the efforts already underway by places like the Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau to market festivals and concerts to people living just south of Howard County.

“Really, you look at Kokomo Beach. If you live in Tipton or Clinton County or the northern part of Hamilton County, 5 bucks to come up to our pool – that’s a pretty good deal.”

He went on to reference the possibilities created by Indiana University Kokomo, which he said is something local officials “just have to take advantage of,” and investments made by Ivy Tech Community College and stable employers like Community Howard Regional Health And St. Vincent Kokomo.

“I’d much rather be here in Howard County than many other counties in the state,” said Goodnight.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.