Focusing on Madison County Quality of Life 2022

Presented by Madison County Community Foundation and South Madison Community Foundation

Coordinated By: Marlene Carey, Carey Forward Communications 

In February 2022, Madison County Community Foundation and South Madison Community Foundation coordinated a series of focus groups to evaluate current opinions about quality of life in Madison County, Indiana. From this work, the two Foundations will determine focus areas for future projects. Pilot project task forces will be assembled, trained in project leadership, and charged with developing initiatives using Foundation grant funds.  

The focus groups provided an opportunity for participants to revisit the reasons they love their communities, as well as identify and discuss with peers the issues that could be improved. At some point in each group, participants became empowered, realizing they could make a difference on their own and they needed to take steps to begin change. 

How we are similar and different

In some ways, Madison County communities look similar with their friendly people, Midwestern values and affordable cost of living. They are united in the love of their communities and desire to improve quality of life for families, particularly children. The communities have some problems in common, related to stressed infrastructure, insufficient activities, and civic engagement. One community is struggling to retain a beloved culture while managing exponential growth. Another seeks creative ways to rebuild its economy and meet basic human needs of its most vulnerable citizens with scarce resources. Others, small and rural, strive to build the amenities and infrastructure that are needed to attract growth. While the problems seem distinct, the communication, collaboration and relationships to positively impact them are very much alike. 

Assets: Respondents spoke about assets in the context of how those things bring them together, contribute to their sense of pride and provide places where relationships are built, memories made, and health restored. Groups spoke of churches, parks, libraries, public safety agencies, unique restaurants, clubs, and shops. Anderson and Northern Madison County community residents mentioned social service resources as lifelines for their most vulnerable residents.

Affordability: Madison County’s overall cost of living index is 76.7/100 [Sperling’s Best Places]. Taxes are low. Many move to Madison County from higher cost-of-living locations to lessen debt and settle into a simpler, slower paced lifestyle.

Proximity: The proximity to I-69 offers a variety of options for work and recreation. Anderson participants cited easy access to higher education, the arts, and hospitals. Northern Madison County small towns and vast rural areas are further removed from these conveniences, some travel at least 25 minutes to reach Anderson, Muncie, or Marion.

Issues: All respondents were asked to identify key issues of concern, both personally and on the community level. They were also asked to envision opportunities or assets not currently present that would improve local quality of life. Hundreds of responses were given, and then respondents chose two priority issues they believe to be most important. Their ranked priorities are shown on reverse. 

 

SMCF 

EXPLORING TOP PRIORITIES IN MORE DETAIL

Mental Illness/Substance Misuse: Mental illness and substance misuse are at the root of so many issues: school graduation rates, homelessness, crime, violence, unemployment, child welfare, teen suicide, community reputation and economic development, among others. In ranking priorities, this issue rose to the top because of its devastating impacts on the personal level and broader community level. Respondents discussed causes, contributing factors, barriers to recovery, and the traumatic effects on “bystanders” like children of the addicted persons.

Infrastructure Issues and Quality of Place: Communities are trying to figure out how to find funds to provide the amenities and resources they need for improvements, while addressing deferred maintenance and replacing outdated assets. Group participants mentioned issues with water, storm sewers, sidewalks, Wi-Fi, blight, and buildings that don’t meet current codes. Anderson and Alexandria participants talked about their industrial parks, established to help them with economic development. 

Abandoned buildings in some communities are a significant problem. These safety liabilities attract undesirable activity. Out of state investors are viewed as unaccountable to local efforts at revitalization. Elwood, Pendleton, and Lapel participants feel their communities are doing a good job of renovating buildings and eliminating blight.

School Reputation: All groups had something to say about schools, but the conversation was more passionate among Anderson participants, who concluded that Anderson Community Schools issues are more about reputation, racial equity, and communication, and not an accurate reflection of quality. Another added, “When I saw Anderson’s school rating, I did not give them a chance. I saw Lapel and Frankton’s ratings were better, so I only toured those schools.” Communities with well-regarded schools see the real estate and population benefits that follow the reputation. South Madison residents acknowledge schools tend to have a “one size fits all” model that doesn’t serve all students equally well.

 Activities for Kids and Families: County residents would like to have more structured activities and options for recreation. Pools, trails, community centers or full service YMCAs, age and ability spanning playgrounds are desired, as are expanded library hours and programs, more teen programs “outside of sports,” whether to keep youth out of trouble or to allow them to explore their interests. Fun options like skating, mini-golf, theaters, and the like have closed and not been replaced with other options.

Factors affecting the most vulnerable: The weight of daily life for the most vulnerable in our communities is heavy. “It’s a many-headed beast that feels overwhelming,” an Anderson group member said. Homelessness, food insecurity, transportation, child care, crime, and even the historic and current inequities perpetrated against Black and minority populations were often cited. In two groups, people of color spoke passionately that they believe minority children are treated differently. Determining the root cause of multiple social problems and investing in trained professional case management and coordinated resources could help with many of these issues.

Civic Relations: A common theme in all groups was frustration with planning, processes, input, and feedback about things that affect them. They said leaders don’t proactively communicate and good information is hard to find. “There is no central outlet for information. This results in misinformation, causes people to go elsewhere for things or do without, and promotes uncivil interactions,” one participant said, “It’s like working without the proper tools.” 

A CLOSER LOOK AT SOUTH MADISON COUNTY

Keep our Small Towns strong: Nowhere in Madison County were discussions about culture and amenities more vibrant than among South Madison groups. Respondents said they feel their community “is an escape from the work grind.” They spoke about safety in the context of friendly officers waving and being there “just in case,” friends and neighbors watching out for each other, and a school system that offers one-to-one educational opportunities and friendly, supportive teachers. They referenced recreation options, tidy, historic streetscapes, local business proprietors, unique festivals and events and highly valued public spaces and systems. These amenities bring people into positive relationships with neighbors, creating a tight knit community and strong pride of ownership. The activity center, trails, and greenspaces were noted by respondents of all demographics as valued “places to gather.” It’s a culture and quality of life they cherish and want to retain despite imminent growth.

Growth Tension: South Madison population is expected to grow tenfold in just 20 years. Residents are managing daily inconveniences of road construction and new housing development as they deal with their fears of losing what they love most about the community: its small-town feel. Respondents worry about increased costs and changing fee structures from impact fees, bonds, and tax increases required to modernize infrastructure to support new developments. Voices in the groups expressed frustration about too much housing too fast; loss of history; rural migration; lost sunsets; and new businesses competing with established ones. “Culture will change as the population changes if we aren’t intentional about addressing this,” a participant warned. 

ON GETTING THINGS DONE

One of the most exciting moments in all the groups occurred when a participant said, “I don’t believe we should always wait on city or county leaders. There are those unsung heroes working in their communities. Sometimes we forget the very powerful words, ‘we the people.’ Sometimes it is going to take us doing what is necessary. So, I think we need a community plan that is led by a community who cares, the ones who are going to do the work. I live here, so I will point the finger at myself. I will step in and do that. I won’t name anyone else’s name.” The group erupted in cheers.

As this report was being written, a cohort of 30 Madison County residents completed Ball State University’s Indiana Community Development Course to learn techniques for tackling community development projects. Course content included:  

  • Growth vs. Development and the myth of the status quo
  • Civic Design, including place-making, connectivity, elements of place
  • Community engagement, power and conflict, framing issues, engaging contradiction
  • Comprehensive Wealth Framework
  • Integrated storytelling
  • Prioritized project planning methods

Course alumni will help develop pilot project teams to address issues and opportunities identified by focus groups and outlined in this report. Follow Madison County Community Foundation and South Madison Community Foundation to get involved where and how it matters most. 

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