From this living room couch, overlooking a currently pristine rural Indiana agricultural landscape, this weekend has been filled with contemplating what has gone wrong in what has happened the past several months in our community. We moved here not long ago, purchased and restored a 120+ year old farmhouse with a barn and small pasture out back, and are surrounded on all sides by family farms. Absent a miracle, we will soon be surrounded on three sides with 600-800 foot tall wind turbines. Sixty plus story structures towering overhead and all around for miles.
We bought this property from a friend who had lived here for decades – because of the peaceful setting and warm welcome we had felt from members of the community as we visited over the years. We came here with business experience, a dream, energy and some capital to invest, ready to start a small business for which we had high hopes and expectations. We hoped to build the business to a point where it could employ some of our neighbors and our own children, and to put down roots in this quiet rural setting where we could spend the remaining decades of our life. We came here for a quality of life.
We did not come here blindly or with rose colored glasses. Many communities in this part of the United States struggle to create a robust, sustainable economy. The demographic picture isn’t great. The community’s residents and infrastructure are aging, while the supply of quality jobs for those who want to make a life here but do not own large tracts of land is constrained. There is an imbalance in public services needed and a sustainable tax base to support those services. Real challenges needing real solutions. The statistics published on Cass County’s economic development website don’t lie. We looked at this as an opportunity to do something that would matter.
We’ve met some wonderful people here – mostly among the people opposed to the proposed Harvest Wind industrial wind development. The only thing that will cause us to prematurely leave this area and take our business aspirations elsewhere is the nightmare that is about to turn this rural landscape into an industrial wind farm. It goes against every principle laid out in the research on rural economic development methods. The damage of this wind farm project to the fabric of the community, to its natural resources, and to its potential to attract and retain a thriving economy in the future has already begun, and will be irreparable when complete. It is not too late, but it is close to being too late.
According to the research of the Indiana University Public Policy Institute documented in their ‘Thriving Communities, Thriving State’ policy project report (March 2016), there are several simple priorities to creating rural and mid-size Indiana communities that thrive. The report begins with the assertion that ‘throughout Indiana’s history, rural…communities have been wonderful places to live, work, and raise families,’ and asserts that these rural and small communities possess many unique advantages over larger communities. These advantages include: 1) the fabric of community that results from relationships among residents, 2) the synergy and accessibility that results from the interaction and relationships between residents and local community leaders, and 3) tremendous natural assets, protected by a strong sense of civic heritage and pattern of civic investment.
Not surprising to this writer, none of these keys to developing thriving communities have to do with soliciting and welcoming huge industrial wind developments in the middle of populated rural Indiana communities.
To the contrary, in the months that this debate over a proposed huge wind farm in Cass, Miami and Fulton counties has raged on we’ve observed how it has begun to tear the fabric of community apart, has shown a deep rift in trust and lack of transparency from local government officials toward hundreds of deeply concerned citizens, and has shown a blatant disregard for the area’s tremendous natural assets and heritage. Seeking seemingly easy solutions to economic issues, local government officials have put the rural communities interests on the auction block of ‘big wind’, and have set themselves up as if they represent the wind developer rather than representing in a fair and impartial way the interest of ALL of the citizens that will be affected for generations by this decision.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Transforming these rural agricultural and residential landscapes into huge swaths of industrial wind development will, within a short period of time, transform tens of thousands of acres into a place where no one will want to live and raise a family (including those whose silence has been bought by long term lease payments). This will become an area where people will drive through or around on their way to somewhere else, wondering — as they are distracted by spinning turbine blades and blinking red lights — why a community would deliberately decide that this should be their future. We did not choose this for our family or our future.
People who can leave will leave, and those who cannot will remember who did this to their families, jobs, schools, and community. Public officials who did this will be voted out and replaced by people unable to undo what has been done, natural assets will be marred for generations, and the competing interests of the few large landowners receiving lease payments and the thousands of people affected by the development without consent or compensation will be a deep sore spot and tear in the fabric of the community.
There is a different way to solve these issues.
The research of the public policy institute task force sponsored by Indiana University on this issue suggests four priorities that if followed, will result in thriving rural and small Indiana communities.
Priority #1: Develop leaders from and for rural and small towns and engage them in implementing a clear civic vision.
It’s often unclear who’s responsible for developing a community’s vision. Often, what a community can and should be varies from community to community and from individual to individual even within a small region. Sometimes, because our focus can be so narrow, it’s difficult to define a holistic, cross-sector definition of civic and what is or is not included. Build individual, organizational, and civic leaders to develop civic vision, community approaches to problem solving, and generate funding.
What if the county officials promoting the wind development project were to harness the energy and passion of community members opposing it to solve the community economic development and demographic issues in an open, collaborative process? What if the lack of consensus on this wind project were viewed by county officials as a key pre-requisite to moving forward?
Priority #2: Encourage entrepreneurship and small business development
Perhaps nowhere are successful small businesses more important than rural communities. From rural grain, pork, and dairy producers to furniture-makers to local service-oriented businesses, rural Indiana has historically been a good place to be an entrepreneur.
Courting industrial wind development that provides minimal sustained job growth, while consuming and marring a huge footprint of private land, and degrades the quality of life and property rights of neighboring non-participating landowners is a huge mistake if your objective is to build a robust sustainable local economy and tax base. A better solution is to seek out, encourage, and attract small business ownership and to prove in public policy decisions that preserving this way of life matters.
We need to learn from the experience of other communities that have gone down these two paths. One group thrives eventually, the other group divides and then dies.
Priority #3: Focus on improved K-12 education programs, and post secondary vocational education and the connection/partnership with community members in engaging the whole community in learning.
Declining enrollments reduce the resources available to many rural school systems. That, in turn, reduces the variety of programs available, including advanced programs. That, in turn, can lead to further declines in enrollment, as parents move their families elsewhere to pursue these opportunities.
I’ve heard (not directly from county commissioners, because they will not directly answer questions regarding their actions and motivations) that there is a large funding gap to provide for the operation of the schools and other public services in this area. That this is the primary reason for seeking the wind project. It is unwise to fund ongoing operating costs for public services with one time windfall payments (no pun intended) given by a wind developer in lieu of taxes. In community after community, statistics also show that people with children who can leave will leave rather than stay living in the shadow of wind farms.
This drains the future life blood of a community, and accelerates a cycle of decline in school systems and in workers who are prepared to make a living in and contribute to a community as adults.
Priority #4: Develop well-maintained infrastructure and quality of life
Rural communities that become well connected and offer a high quality of life could be positioned to thrive! Work within many industries can be done from anywhere with an Internet connection. And well-connected places with small-town amenities and quality of life could become attractive for talented, knowledge-based workers and business owners to live and work.
Rural Indiana is getting better at providing the basic infrastructure. What remains to be seen is whether rural Indiana will choose to become an industrial wind farm wasteland also. The term ‘wasteland’ is intentional. To litter the landscape with enormous industrial wind turbines is a complete waste of land.
The most incredible asset we have – the rural, small town, agricultural landscape. Rolling hills and flat lands, dotted with farm houses and old barns. Mile after mile of corn and beans. Mind-blowing beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The good will of Indiana people and the relationships among them. What a waste.