Northeast Indiana is going to be way, way late if it doesn’t drive faster on the Road to One Million.
The Road to One Million was northeast Indiana’s pitch to the state for $42 million in funding from the state as part of the Regional Cities initiative. With that money, the region has invested in multiple quality-of-life projects, with the overarching goal of raising the regional population to 1 million residents by 2031.
But based on new U.S. Census Bureau population estimates released Thursday, northeast Indiana is going to be literally decades late to the party.
Of the 11 counties in the region, all but Wabash County showed some positive population growth from 2017 to 2018 (although Huntington County added just one new person, according to the tallies).
In total, the 11 counties added 4,874 residents for an overall total of 784,805. That’s a growth rate of 0.62%.
Although northeast Indiana did outpace the 0.48% of the state and matched the 0.62% of the U.S. as a whole, this sluggish pace isn’t going to get the region to where it wants to be by 2031. Not even close.
At that rate, northeast Indiana will hit 1 million residents in a little over 44 years — 2062.
None of the individual counties posted a growth rate higher than 1 percent, not even Allen County, which serves as the main urban driver for the region’s population and economy.
The rural counties, with rapidly aging populations and fewer young people in the hopper, may actually decelerate in growth in the near future if resident deaths outpace births and in-migration.
Now, in the region’s defense, the Regional Cities projects only got underway a few years ago and many — like Ligonier’s Strawberry Cultural Trail or Kendallville’s Outdoor Recreational Complex — are still in development.
When completed, the region’s Road to One Million projects may help to spur new interest and accelerate growth.
Still, in order to hit 1 million residents, the region is going to have to start adding an average of about 18,000 people per year, a rate 3.7 times higher than the current rate.
Are new trails, renovations to theaters and investments in sports facilities going to lead to that level of growth for 2031? It will be an impressive feat if they do, but we wouldn’t hold our breath.
Even if that growth does happen, those new residents may be hard-pressed to find somewhere to live.
In the first quarter of 2019, home builders were issued 278 permits in Allen, Adams, DeKalb, Huntington, Wells and Whitley counties, six of the 11 counties in the region, according to the Home Builders Association of Fort Wayne.
Even if 1,500 new homes were built and every home filled with a five-person family in the Home Builder’s Association zone, that would add only 7,500 residents. It’s doubtful Steuben, LaGrange, Noble, Kosciusko and Wabash counties will post anywhere close to as many new housing starts as the Fort Wayne metro area.
On top of that, of the 30 builders tracked by the Fort Wayne HBA, all of those builders are constructing homes with an average price of $180,000 or above, un-affordable for the average household in northeast Indiana.
If northeast Indiana wants to grow faster, we suggest regional developers devote much more attention to the issue of housing, especially finding ways to create more affordable housing for average earners.
Because even if the region’s attractions spur a lot of new interest here, northeast Indiana is going to have to greatly accelerate its ability to house new residents and to hit its 2031 target.