Brown County has “excellent schools”; abundant art, nature and adventure opportunities; well-educated and civically engaged older residents; and a number of “success stories” such as the library, YMCA and art galleries built through the generosity of patrons.
It also has “a real and perceived trust gap” among elected officials and residents, civic disengagement among youth and working families and “not much of a strategic vision”; many of its residents earn modest wages in the tourist industry; about half the land is non-taxable to support government services; and the county’s population is expected to decline through 2050.
Those are just some of the reasons why a group of county residents said they are trying for the Hometown Collaboration Initiative. It’s a state program intended to help a community identify and build upon its assets and plan a path for the future.
Brown County is a semifinalist. The announcement of which communities have been chosen will come Thursday, May 4.
About 40 Brown Countians gathered in the library April 12 to hear and explain why the county should be chosen for the HCI.
Representatives from Purdue and Ball State universities and the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs heard the pitch from an “interim HCI team,” who pulled the application together in a few short weeks.
Brown County Redevelopment Commission member Tina Bedey said most of those interim members will not be directly involved if Brown County wins the HCI so that other people can step forward and lead.
Community members expressed excitement that this program could help bring people into discussions about the county’s future who have not been involved before. At initial HCI information sessions in late March, several supporters said they were pleasantly surprised to see so many people they didn’t know.
They talked about moving from a “top-down” leadership approach to one in which everyone feels like their voice is being heard.
They also talked about their data-collection process, which has already begun under the Brown County Redevelopment Commission. A group of Indiana University interns have been working on a project for the RDC that will show trends for population, revenue and taxation for the next several years. They’ll be presenting it to the RDC on May 4.
RDC member Tim Clark said cost efficiencies need to be developed to keep essential services, and making those changes will require a high level of collaboration and leadership.
They hope that with the HCI’s training process, new and existing community leaders can learn those essential skills.
Brown County has undergone many planning studies over the years — and HCI team members want to build upon those — but putting any of them into practice has been a challenge.
“Having core teams that can interrelate is key,” Bedey said.
“We don’t have common processes to implement countywide plans. … That’s where we see the HCI coming into play.”
If Brown County is selected, local HCI team members will receive several hours of training with a “community coach” from Purdue, Ball State or OCRA, then start collecting opinions and data from a variety of sources about their community, state leaders explained.
Toward the end of that process — which could take about a year — the team will pick a “capstone project” to undertake. That project is to be data- and community-driven.
Several Brown County residents who submitted letters of support for the HCI said they wanted to get involved because of the opportunity for open discussion with a diverse group of people and to have a say in their community’s future.
One dissenting voice emerged in an email sent to local team members and an OCRA rep during the presentation.
Tricia Bock, who had submitted a letter of support for the HCI, said she was rescinding it because not enough generational Brown Countians were included; because the application contains phrases such as “modernize or pay the price” describing data about economic challenges in the county; because the presentation slides mentioned the term “Stellar”; and “many other reasons.”
Bock was part of a group that protested “No Stellar, Not This Year” three years ago when OCRA reps came for a visit. The Stellar Communities program would have provided state funding opportunities for several major projects which were picked by a small group of town and county leaders. Some of those projects went forward on their own; many have been shelved for lack of community support or funding.
Clark said Stellar was listed on a chart to show which grant programs OCRA offers. HCI team members have stressed that the HCI is not Stellar.
“I want you to know that I personally have no interest in making any substantial changes to our wonderful county,” HCI supporter Jim Kemp wrote back to Bock. “My level of interest is focused on improving the quality of our lives rather than the quantity of our lives.”
Many of the challenges Brown County is facing are ones other Indiana counties are facing as well, Brown County Community Foundation CEO Larry Pejeau said in the presentation. Kemp also mentioned the economic changes of 2008 in his response to Bock.
“I would like to remain hopeful that the possibility of open communication and the willingness to listen to each other’s personal perspective with empathy would eventually lead us collectively to a community united rather than a community divided,” Kemp wrote.
Read Brown County’s HCI application: choosebrowncounty.com/work/rdc-document-resources/
See the slides used during the HCI presentation: Nashville-Presentation-B-2
Read Tricia Bock’s letter to the local HCI team and state selection team: http://www.bcdemocrat.com/2017/04/18/letters-no-need-for-hometown-collaboration-initiative/