ANDERSON -- Researchers from Ball State University's Center for Business and Economic Research have updated their Community Asset Inventory and Rankings for Hoosier counties.

Originally published in 2012, the study aims to provide concrete, easy-to-use data for communities to reference when looking toward development and improvement (please see box).

"I want (communities) to look at themselves, and understand themselves in a way that allows them to focus on what they're good at and understand that, and then see what they're not as good at and make adjustments," said Michael Hicks, Center for Business and Economic Research and BSU Miller College of Business George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics.

The idea for the study began when CBER and the Indiana Communities Institute realized the lack of actual data being used to inform policy decisions and community development.

Instead, Hicks said almost every county Chamber of Commerce website states their county is "a great place to raise a family," and has "great schools," when that is not always the case.

"It became clear communities didn't quite understand where they actually stood on characteristics of their community in terms of hard data," said Indiana Communities Institute executive director David Terrell.

"We need to make our communities as good as they can be, but in order to (do so) we need some benchmarks on where we stand with different characteristics of the quality of community."

Researchers including Hicks and Terrell began gathering data and separated it into seven categories:

• People, including population growth, poverty rates and unemployment rates

• Health of human capital and workforce, including fertility rates, death rates, premature death rate and poor and fair health rates

• Education of human capital and workforce, including the percent of students who passed ISTEP English and math, degrees earned and high school graduation rates

• Government impact and economy, including crime rate, tax rates, main street rates and metropolitan development

• Arts, entertainment and recreation, including per capita personal income, employment per 1,000 people, average compensation per employee, as well as the number of marinas, fairground athletic fields and golf courses

• Changeable public amenities, including public parks, historic and cultural sites, fishing and boating areas, camping or RV parks, hiking/walking trails, beaches and school grounds

• State and public amenities, including forests, fish and wildlife areas as well as dedicated nature preserves, bodies of water and shore lines

This year's study also included data regarding the safety and livability of neighborhoods as well as the quality of local schools to create a housing value barometer.

"It really forces thoughtful communities to have a conversation," Terrell said. "When it first comes out, some individuals in communities react with shock at some of the findings, and then you see some really thoughtful discussions taking place about what that means and what we can do to make that better.

"It really kind of sets a course for a different kind of conversation in communities, and the key to that is acknowledging and readiness for change."

Hicks added that having this type of information allows community members to be more informed about the actual health of their city and see the data for themselves, rather than relying on the statements of others.

When comparing the 2019 and 2012 studies and talking with people throughout the state, Hicks and Terrell said a few things stood out to them.

The first was an overall sense of improvement.

"We're at the end of a recovery, so everybody's economy got better, everybody's unemployment rate dropped, everybody's poverty rate dropped, but some places just dropped a lot more," Hicks said.

The pair also noticed more communities have shifted their understanding of what economic development is about.

"The traditional thinking was, well, the best way to get population growth is we just need to grow more jobs, and if we have more jobs, more people will come to our community,' and the research doesn't show that," Terrell said. "The research shows that people are attracted to the communities that have good schools and good amenities, and people are going to move to where they want to live and the companies and the jobs are going to follow the people."

Now that the updated study has been released, Hicks, Terrell and other members of the Indiana Communities Institute and CBER are traveling across the state to help communities interpret the data and put it to use.

Elwood Mayor Todd Jones said speaking with the CBER and Indiana Communities Institute as well as seeing the data they have collected is "very important for the collaboration of interlocal agreements for different communities."

"I think it's important that we identify these numbers and see where we are lacking and where we are falling behind. It's also important to know where our strong points are," Jones said. "You're only as good as your weakest link, but you can't be scared to talk about the positive things that are going on."

One of the most important things Hicks and Terrell said they want communities to know is that the data may not be entirely reflective of individual cities and towns within each county.

Terrell said countywide data is important to use, as it is the most researchers can zoom into specific locations while still maintaining the integrity and quality of information that is gathered. The topics in this study, however, take time to improve, and may not be visible throughout an entire county right away.

"Sometimes when you see things like letter grades, people kind of fall back into this mindset of 'We're doing everything wrong.' I think there are two things we need to think about," Terrell said. "The data is longitudinal, and a lot of it takes a lot of hard work to get, so it could be that communities are doing a lot of things right -- your programs are in place, but it's just the data hasn't moved yet."

No matter what grade a county is assigned, however, Hicks said he hopes everyone understands that "every community can get better," and while it is a "difficult, long-term process," the results of this study should help each community set real goals.(please

Franklin County

• C in people, the same grade received in 2012

• A in health, up from a C received in 2012

• C in education, the same grade received in 2012

• B in government impact and economy, down from an A received in 2012

• C- in arts, entertainment and recreation, the same grade received in 2012

The number of changeable public amenities and static public amenities remained at 3 and 4, respectively.

Franklin County's housing value barometer had a warning while neighboring counties were recovering.

Ripley County

• B in people, the same grade received in 2012

• B- in health, a rise from a C received in 2012

• B in education, up from a C+ received in 2012

• D+ in government impact and economy, a decrease from a C received in 2012

• C in arts, entertainment and recreation, the same grade received in 2012

The number of changeable public amenities and static public amenities remained at 2 and 3, respectively.

Ripley County's housing value barometer was distressed while neighboring counties were recovering.

Source: Ball State University's Center for Business and Economic Research Community Asset Inventory and Rankings, https://cair.cberdata.org/files/CAIR%20Report%202019.pdf