Two decades of steady growth came to an end in Indianapolis last year when the city experienced a shrinking population, raising some concerns about its economic future.
The drop of 5,600 residents between July 2020 and July 2021 occurred during the pandemic, when the deaths of more than 1,200 people in Marion County were blamed on the coronavirus during the same period. During this time, the practice of remote work took hold, which may have influenced departures from the city.
Observers have differing views on the reversal of a growth trend that saw Indianapolis’ population jump from 782,000 in 2010 to 887,600 in 2020. The 2021 population figure is 882,000 .
Bill Oesterle, founder of two worker recruitment companies, TMap and MakeMyMove, said the scale of the population decline was concerning.
“In cities across the United States, we’re seeing the pandemic hit the urban core,” Oesterle said. “Indianapolis has not been isolated from this, and that’s troubling.”
Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, views population growth as the strongest single sign of regional economic health.
When reviewing the 2021 data, Hicks said the first post-COVID population adjustments are underway. Citing the rise of remote work as an important development, Hicks said population patterns could emerge over decades.
“It’s entirely possible that we’re in for a long period where traditional patterns of household relocation will continue to be tested,” Hicks said. “We’re going to see a different pattern emerge, so there are more people living in places they want to live and not caring about the job options available to them.”
Matthew Kinghorn, senior demographer at the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University Kelley School of Business, analyzed US Census Bureau data on counties and cities this spring.
Kinghorn said an estimated net emigration of more than 9,200 people from Marion County was the “main driver” of population decline in Indianapolis.
He is not ready to declare that remote work is an important factor.
“It’s far too early for me to be able to say whether or not people have been able to take advantage of remote work situations to move to less populated areas,” Kinghorn said.
Portia Bailey-Bernard, vice president of economic development at Indy Chamber and mayor’s appointee for economic development, said the city’s declining population isn’t too alarming. Bailey-Bernard notes, for example, that the occupancy rate for multi-family buildings in downtown Indianapolis is 93%.
“We know cities across the country have seen a decrease during the pandemic,” Bailey-Bernard said. “Indianapolis has not been unique in this population loss, and I don’t anticipate a decrease in the years to come.”
Westfield tops the list of fastest growing cities in Indiana with a 7.7% population increase from 2020 to 2021. The Hamilton County community has become one of seven cities in the states United States to top 50,000 in 2021. Jeffersonville, an Indiana suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, has also joined the 50,000 club.
Four communities in the Indianapolis metro area followed Westfield on the state’s fastest-growing list: Whitestown, with a 7.4% increase; McCordsville, 7%; Avon, 5.7%; and Bargersville, 5.4%. A trio of Lake County communities in the Chicago metro area landed in Indiana’s Top 10 fastest growing cities: St. John, up 4.9%; Cedar Lake, 3.9%; and Winfield, 3.7%.
“It’s been the story for a while in Indiana, but a handful of metro areas are fueling the state’s entire growth,” Kinghorn said.
Fishers and Carmel each passed the 100,000 population mark for the first time in 2021.
Supported by these suburbs, the Indianapolis metro area has fared well relative to the population growth of other Midwestern cities.
Between 2010 and 2020, the Indianapolis metro area grew 9.97%, a rate that trailed only Louisville (12.87%), Columbus, Ohio (10.2%) and Minneapolis (10. 05%).
In 2021, the Indianapolis metro area grew 0.6%, surpassing Columbus (0.5%), Cincinnati (0.1%), Louisville (0.0%), Detroit (a decline of 0.5 %), Cleveland (a decrease of 0.5%) and Chicago. (a decrease of 1%).
Efforts are underway to bolster the population of the Indy area.
In December, the White River Regional Opportunity Initiative — which includes Marion, Hamilton, and Madison counties as well as the communities of Zionsville and McCordsville — was selected as a recipient of a $20 million Accelerator Initiative grant. and regional economic development focused on the White River.
“We have this amazing natural convenience,” said Bailey-Bernard, an Indy Chamber executive. “We could have a real opportunity to do something with this riverside.”
Choose your place
Ball State faculty member Hicks said work-from-home policies give people a wider range of options for choosing where to live.
“Instead of moving to a bigger house in the suburbs when you have kids, people potentially move before they have a family,” Hicks said. “And they may be looking for different things. They may be looking for really affordable housing or a hobby farm somewhere. If you only have to be at work in Indianapolis one day a week, then you could live in Muncie or Portland or South Bend or Marion or Terre Haute.
In downtown Indianapolis, Hicks predicts unused offices will be turned into apartments.
“I think companies might say, ‘Maybe what I’ll do is turn half of these office spaces into short-term apartments,'” Hicks said. “When I hire someone, I give them six free months in my apartment to research Indianapolis and figure out where they want to be. That kind of innovation is coming. This will be what many high-end workers will be looking for.
Oesterle, who co-founded Angie’s List, said the era of remote work poses challenges for downtown businesses.
“There are knowledge workers who don’t need to be on site, and they realize they can avoid a drive and parking lot and all that,” Oesterle said. “Downtown is going to have to work hard to improve its appeal to people.”
Bailey-Bernard said the future can be seen in the 16 Tech and Bottleworks developments that combine workplaces with quality-of-life amenities. Next comes the transformation of the historic Stutz Motor Car Co. industrial complex and the Elevator Hill campus that once housed the headquarters of Angie’s List.
“We are seeing a shift from our traditional downtown towers to more neighborhood-like office space,” Bailey-Bernard said. “Places that have all the conveniences: going to the office, going to work out, having a beer after work, going to the movies, going to a restaurant.”
Overall, Indiana added 20,300 residents in 2021 to reach a total population of nearly 6.81 million. Indiana Business Research Center demographer Kinghorn said 20,300 represents the state’s smallest increase since 2015 and falls short of Indiana’s average annual gain of 30,000 in the previous decade. .
Oesterle summarizes the situation by saying, “The state is not growing fast enough.
Raising birth rates and expanding refugee resettlements are two ways to increase the population, Oesterle said.
In terms of attracting workers, Oesterle said anyone in Indiana can present the state as a place to live.
The Indiana Destination Development Corp. recently unveiled its “IN Indiana” campaign which provides free marketing resources to any business, small town, city and destination. The idea, according to Visit Indiana, is to create a unified message to attract new residents and tourists.
“Communities are going to have to develop the capacity to market themselves,” Oesterle said. “They haven’t had to in the past, and now they have to.”•