GUEST COLUMN: A study of tourism and economic sustainability

By TIM CLARK, guest columnist

Economic impact studies of tourism in Indiana and Brown County reinforce the benefits of sustaining a tourism industry. However, tourism, by itself, has not and cannot provide a sustainable economic future for Brown County.

Further, too much tourism can have detrimental effects on the attributes that have attracted pioneers, artists, residents and visitors to Brown County since 1836.

The Brown County Community Readiness Initiative, a survey and economic assessment conducted by the Ball State Economic and Research Institute, concluded that Brown County’s greatest potential for economic growth is not tourism, but as a bedroom community.

This option is defined as attracting individuals and families that live in Brown County but can work at home or commute to the higher-paying jobs outside the county.

This is not a new phenomenon. Past economic studies have identified that the majority of citizens in Brown County commute outside the county for employment. This strategy is among the best strategies for having positive impacts on all five of our community vitality indicators (CVIs) that include assessed property value, per capita income, population, school enrollment and educational attainment rates.

The study also reinforced the importance of “quality of place,” which includes good schools and amenities where people want to live. Identifying and maintaining these attributes must be in the county comprehensive plan.

A May 2017 assessment by graduate students of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) reinforced the conclusions from the Ball State study to include the importance of expanding the tax base to support the diversification of the business industries in the county.

One of the charts with this column includes data obtained from the U.S. Government Bureau of Labor Statistics. The tourism industry is represented in the supersector identified as “leisure and hospitality.”

Comparing 2005 data with 2016 data identifies that the number of the establishments have stayed the same, jobs have decreased and wages are the lowest of the categories. Perhaps most important, the number of establishments in most categories have decreased, with increases in the number of jobs in just a few areas.

In the 2014 Strategic Plan for Economic and Community Prosperity in Southwest Central Indiana, the “hospitality and tourism” sector was identified as having 181 establishments in the region, employing 3,506 people, with the lowest average wage ($24,477) of all the sectors.

workforce economics

To address the challenges within our region, and with funding provided by the Lilly Endowment, the Regional Opportunity Initiative (ROI) was established to “advance economic and community prosperity in an 11-county area that encompasses Brown, Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen and Washington counties.”

To prepare our students for successful careers, Brown County Schools recently competed for and was awarded a grant from ROI to prepare our students to be qualified for the higher-paying jobs. This can lead to a business climate and a workforce that will help attract new businesses to Brown County.

The Brown County Redevelopment Commission (RDC) was tasked to identify countywide strategies that would result in improvement in CVIs. Strategies also will need to consider courses of action if the tax base continues to decline.

The key priorities for the county include a focus on options that would provide the funding to support the capital improvements required to improve and expand the core infrastructure within the county. This infrastructure includes roads, water, sewer, broadband, police, fire and emergency services, which would support the expansion of residential development and contribute to positive trends in the county CVIs.

The critical priority for the county is broadband. Access to the internet is now considered a vital utility that is critical for leveraging the educational opportunities for our students, as well as attracting businesses and new residents.

In support of this aim, the RDC has provided a proposal to the Area Plan Commission (APC) to work collaboratively in developing a comprehensive plan and economic strategy that will produce results where we will all benefit — or at least, will not be any worse off.

The Brown County Commissioners and Brown County Council and all their appointed commission and board members need to unite toward a common vision, plan and strategy that has the support of the citizenry.

The trend nationally has been one of polarization by wealth and political affiliation. The challenges and opportunities facing Brown Countians cannot be achieved with a divided community.

The residents of Brown County should expect the collaboration and action that will lead to a sustainable economic future.

Tim Clark is a member of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission. He can be reached through the newspaper at newsroom@bcdemocrat.com.