By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–IU Southeast’s Applied Research Education Center (AREC) has presented “Forward Together,” a report that establishes baseline data to guide future community and economic development efforts in Scott County, Indiana.
The report, commissioned by the Scott County Community Foundation and funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc., draws upon exhaustive surveys of 407 residents and conversations with two dozen people, including community leaders, to present a picture of Scott County that is both informed and hopeful, while acknowledging current and future issues.
It will be used to inform a new strategic plan for the county.
“Like many rural manufacturing and agricultural communities, the last few decades brought painful economic restructuring and the serious social challenges that accompanied it,” said Melissa Fry, director of AREC and the report’s lead author. “But Scott County has real opportunities to support residents and capitalize on strong community ties, good schools, and the desirable combination of rural amenities and close proximity to urban opportunities.”
The study provides data on areas ranging from education and health care to housing and the arts, with a strong focus on the economy.
While giving ample weight to Scott County’s considerable advantages–including location, natural beauty and community spirit–the report documents sobering gaps in education, the erosion of jobs and the tax base, the shortage of mental health care and an inadequate public transportation infrastructure that have held the area back in recent years.
Scott County is “ground zero” for the ongoing opioid epidemic, with knock-on effects in fragile communities already struggling to cope with larger economic and social transitions.
Fry and her team make clear that as the challenges confronting Scott County are themselves interrelated, the solutions must also be conceived and executed in a holistic manner.
The project began with meetings between AREC and the Looking Forward Scott County committee, which oversaw the report and the upcoming strategic planning effort it will inform. The AREC team then interviewed a variety of local leaders and active community members.
According to Fry, these interviews included representatives of law enforcement, township trustees, an elected official, a clergy member and spouse, and a local nonprofit leader.
The AREC team designed a survey and distributed it both electronically and on paper, with drop boxes for the latter across the county. They also hosted survey events.
“We served food, distributed surveys, and then, after completing surveys, engaged locals in conversations about what they most wanted to tell us about Scott County,” Fry said.
While some of these conversations were with one or two people, others included half a dozen or more, and morphed into full listening sessions.
All of this was before the shut-downs associated with COVID-19. At that point, the survey had been in the field for about six weeks, according to Fry. The AREC team brought in the drop boxes, made another push with the electronic version, and dove into processing and analyzing the data.
The team delivered the final report and recommendations to the Scott County Community Foundation Board of Directors.
Among the recommendations:
- Build public-private partnerships to bring more primary care physicians and behavioral health providers to Scott County;
- Expand public, nonprofit and business partnerships to invest in high quality early care and education for every child from birth to age five;
- Increase the supply of safe housing, adding new neighborhoods while preserving natural assets;
- Expand school-based arts programs, and develop a community arts program that brings together people of all ages in a space that fosters creativity through visual and performing arts and activities;
- Develop public transportation to facilitate participation in education, recreation and employment.
Fry hopes that AREC can continue to deliver information and materials that empower local organizations and people to build resilient communities.
“This work is about bringing together lots of information along with community members’ perceptions to figure out what the whole picture is, so we can identify initiatives that have the capacity to affect more than one part of the system in ways that generate positive feedback loops in the community’s development,” Fry said.
Jaime Toppe ’06, executive director of the Scott County Community Foundation, majored in sociology while at IU Southeast and also worked with AREC. She looks forward to developing a strategic plan for the county that is based on data that can illuminate the big picture while also identifying smaller areas of concern that can be addressed in ways that contribute to the whole.
“This study helps us understand that alignment does not mean we all work on the same piece of the puzzle, but it does mean that we should target leverage points that will have positive ripple effects,” Toppe said. “We can align our resources and efforts toward common goals for a healthy and vibrant community.”
In recognizing the impact of the work, Toppe appreciated the AREC team’s deep knowledge of the region, analytical skill and ability to communicate effectively.
“Dr. Fry and her staff at AREC have produced high-quality professional reports that will help our efforts in community planning,” Toppe said. “We are so grateful that we had this expertise so close to home!”
Homepage photo courtesy of the Scott County Community Foundation.