Sept. 17 – Ken Beck and his wife Pat are seated on a sidewalk bench outside the Urban Farmshake on a sunny Wednesday afternoon along a Rockville town square.
Teens began walking into the store for drinks and snacks from its coffee and lunch bar, which is surrounded by rustic home décor items, antiques, and boutique clothing. “It’s after school time,” explained Nicole Bonomo, a lifelong Rockville resident who works as an Urban Farmchic counter.
The Peaks are quietly talking outside on the bench. The couple from Michigan had been visiting the rural landscape of Park County with friends who owned a farm there. The Beck family hails from Traverse City, a town of 15,525 people located on a bay near Lake Michigan.
“There are a lot of people, who are not retired, on the move [to Traverse City] “It’s a really nice place, and they can do their work from home anywhere,” said Ken Beck.
Park County is poised to experience a similar stature. At least, that’s the prediction in “The State of the Rural Economy in Indiana,” a new report released this month by a team of economists at Ball State University.
Park is ranked among the 20 largest counties in the state expected to see growth in the post-COVID-19 era, according to a Ball State report. Standards factors in the percentage of the population working remotely, housing availability, quality of life (based on a balance between local labor and housing markets) and presence of an A or B school. Park County ranked ninth overall.
Boasting the second highest percentage of remote workers (6.5%) among rural counties, it ranks 12th in the Quality of Life Account, and highly rated North Central Parke Community School Corp.
“Places like Rockville that have amenities that people might want will be targets for resettlement [wave] “To a degree they would never have imagined,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State.
Only one rural county among the top 20 counties in Ball State’s calculations has a higher percentage of residents working remotely—LaGrange in northern Indiana at 9.4%.
Park County Commissioner Jim Mays said Park County “has seen a slight increase in remote workers.”
With its rural setting of agricultural fields and forests, Parke does not have large industrial employers and relies on agriculture and tourism to fuel its economy. “But now you can get access to doing some jobs remotely,” Mess said. “I think we’re going to see a big increase in the next few years.”
The national sea change for adults working remotely from their homes, spurred by employers trying to deal with the isolation necessitated by COVID-19, has continued beyond the peak of the pandemic. Millions of Americans could, in theory, now work for companies based in major cities while living hundreds of miles away in less crowded places. Hicks said the numbers quadrupled from 2020 to 2021.
To read the study
—Ball State University study, “The State of the Rural Economy in Indiana,” can be found online at https://bit.ly/3eWiuSi.
As of August, a biweekly US Census Bureau survey showed that 26.5% of adults worked remotely for at least one day out of the previous week and 14.4% worked full time. Indiana is only a bit behind, with 21.4% of adults doing some work remotely and 11.1% working entirely remotely. Hicks expects the remote workforce to grow to include more than half of all workers, at least part-time, over the next two decades.
“Slower pace, safer environment”
Back in Urban Farmchic in Rockville Square, Nicole Bonomo understands why Parke County is an attractive destination for people who work from anywhere. It’s the same place that attracts over a million visitors each October for the 10-day Covered Bridge Festival, where they cruise across the county’s 31 covered bridges, eat pumpkin ice cream and buy handmade goods.
“For someone with kids, it’s the small town community and the safest environment,” said Bonomo, 38, a Rockville High School graduate.
That’s exactly the atmosphere that remote worker Eric Lear has found since he, his wife Heather and their 3-year-old daughter moved from Indianapolis to Rockville last year. It’s just a slower pace,” Eric Lear said Friday morning. “It’s obviously a little bit safer,” he added.
The couple experienced small incidents, such as theft of delivered packages, at their former home in downtown Indianapolis. Also, Lear took 19 miles to get to his job as a supply chain analyst at an Indianapolis warehousing company 45 minutes.
Before the pandemic, his wife’s job at an indie software company allowed her to work remotely for a few days a month. That switched to full-time remote work once COVID hit, and remote work continues. Lear decided to find a job that would allow him to do the same, and he got it and the couple chose to move to Rockville, where both of their parents’ groups live. If not for those family ties, their destination might have been somewhere else in the Hoosier countryside.
“We definitely chose a rural area,” Lear said. “I don’t know if it’s Park County.”
Metro shuts down when needed
For many remote workers, rural life can be more practical in Indiana, said Hicks of Ball State. Some may need to make an occasional in-person appearance at their company, requiring a car or plane trip. Nearly 90% of Hoosiers live within a 90-minute drive of the major airports in Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, Evansville, or Fort Wayne, as opposed to the Great Plains states where the metro can be five hours away.
“If you were to geographically position to work remotely, Indiana would be an ideal location,” Hicks said.
However, Indiana policymakers cannot assume that it is an automatic choice for such workers. Some counties in the Ball State’s top 20 have low ratings in housing and quality of life. The researchers did not measure quality of life on the basis of the number of attractive amenities, a number that is difficult to quantify, but instead on the basis that places with a higher quality of life will attract new residents willing to pay more for housing there. Low crime rates, broadband access, and entertainment opportunities are top priorities, but good, well-funded schools have been the number one selling point for moving workers.
Communities without an A or B-ranked school did not make Ball State a top 20 school.
“Challenge for many places [in Indiana] Schools haven’t been modernized in a long time, Hicks said, “while spending does not always determine the quality of a public school,” at some point, facilities matter,” Hicks said.
While Parke County has the required well-rated school, it is working to expand broadband access, with four companies bidding to spread robust internet connections “across the county over the next year,” Meece hopes. Public sewer systems can extend into North Park County, joining others with this service. A recent study of housing revealed that the county has luxury homes that are “being taken away very quickly,” Mays said, along with 60- to 70-year-old housing and open spaces for those who want to build. Parke’s housing stock ranks 49th among all Indiana counties in the Ball State measurement.
Kirby Kirkpatrick and his wife Paula both run remote businesses and moved in 2015 from Hendricks County to Park County, at the suggestion of a realtor. Surprisingly, he said, they found less traffic and more outdoor opportunities such as Turkey Run and Sheds state parks, festivals and entertainment. Kirkpatrick’s – Success Express business, which includes promotional products, business training and life coaching – requires only a good internet connection to run it remotely. Rockville has it, though Kirkpatrick added, “That’s something the county needs a little more.”
Other than that, 50-year-old Kirkpatrick considers Park County a “remote worker’s paradise.”
“Park County must be ready to thrive, with all that it has to offer,” he said.
It’s an era that could change the fate of small towns and rural Indiana, at least for those who wish to adapt.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]