A publication of the Indiana Business Research Center at IU's Kelley School of Business
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The Saga of Small Towns

Rachel Strange

Location, location, location. This phrase, often used in connection with real estate, can also apply to Indiana’s small towns. Since 1990, most of Indiana’s small towns with significant population increases have been located near a major metro.

In fact, small towns located within a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) grew a combined 60 percent between 1990 and 2014. Small towns outside of MSA boundaries only grew 6 percent as a whole.

We explored recent small town population change (from 2010 to 2014) in a previous article.1 We noted that increasing suburbanization seemed to be driving the growth in cities and towns with less than 10,000 people (which we refer to as “small towns” for convenience). Here, we take a longer term look and explore how population has changed in Indiana’s small towns since 1990, with a special focus on differences based on MSA status.

The Backstory

In 1990, Indiana had 504 cities and towns with less than 10,000 residents. By 2014, 490 incorporated areas met that threshold, and 12 percent of the Indiana population lived in a small town.

Small Towns that No Longer Exist

Since 1990, seven small towns have dissolved and no longer exist (see Table 1).

Table 1: Population History of the Small Towns Dissolving between 1990 and 2014

Town 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Carefree - 41 26 - -
Castleton 183 80 37 - -
Judson 63 80 61 - -
Lake Hart - 231 213 - -
Milford 187 177 126 121 -
New Providence 337 384 270 - -
Fredericksburg 207 233 155 92 85

Note: Fredericksburg dissolved in 2012.
Source: IBRC, using U.S. Census Bureau data

map

Small Towns that Got Bigger

Meanwhile, 13 towns that had less than 10,000 people in 1990 have surpassed that threshold (see Table 2). Back in 1990, Fishers—now the sixth-largest incorporated area in the state—qualified as a small town.

Table 2: Small Towns Surpassing 10,000 Residents Threshold between 1990 and 2014

Place 1990 2000 2010 2014 Change, 1990-2014 Percent Change
Fishers 7,508 37,835 76,794 86,325 78,817 1,049.8%
Westfield 3,304 9,293 30,068 35,297 31,993 968.3%
Zionsville 5,281 8,775 14,160 25,734 20,453 387.3%
Brownsburg 7,628 14,520 21,285 23,322 15,694 205.7%
St. John 4,921 8,382 14,850 16,117 11,196 227.5%
New Haven 9,320 12,406 14,794 15,608 6,288 67.5%
Chesterton 9,124 10,488 13,068 13,403 4,279 46.9%
Auburn 9,379 12,074 12,731 12,834 3,455 36.8%
Cedar Lake 8,885 9,279 11,560 11,854 2,969 33.4%
Greensburg 9,286 10,260 11,492 11,817 2,531 27.3%
Yorktown 4,106 4,785 9,405 11,220 7,114 173.3%
Greencastle 8,984 9,880 10,326 10,362 1,378 15.3%
Plymouth 8,303 9,840 10,033 10,095 1,792 21.6%

Note: In several cases, annexation played a role in the growth between 1990 and 2014.
Source: IBRC, using U.S. Census Bureau data

With the exceptions of Greensburg in Decatur County, Plymouth in Marshall County and Auburn in DeKalb County, all of these places are located within a metropolitan area, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Places with Less than 10,000 Residents in 1990 but More than 10,000 Residents in 2014

graphic

Source: IBRC, using U.S. Census Bureau data

A Metro/Non-Metro Comparison

Figure 2 illustrates how small town population change has varied across the state since 1990.

Figure 2: Small Town Population Change, 1990 to 2014

map

Source: IBRC, using U.S. Census Bureau data

Across Indiana, 236 small towns were located within an MSA. Fifty-five percent of these metros grew between 1990 and 2014.2 Meanwhile, only 44 percent of the 261 small towns in non-metro areas of the state grew.

The median growth for small towns within MSAs was 5 percent, compared to -2 percent for non-metro small towns (see Table 3).

Table 3: Metro/Non-Metro Comparison, 1990 to 2014

Small Towns within an MSA Small Towns outside of an MSA
Number of Small Towns* 236 261
Growing 130 115
No Change (+/- 5) 14 12
Declining 92 134
Population Change 254,098 (60%) 22,893 (6%)
Average Change 34% 3%
Median Change 5% -2%

*Total number of small towns in 1990, excluding the seven that dissolved during the time frame.
Note: The explosive growth in Fishers pulls the “within MSA” population change figures up slightly. When excluded, the within MSA population change becomes 175,281, and the average falls to 30 percent.
Source: IBRC, using U.S. Census Bureau data

By focusing on the large dots in Figure 3, one can zone in on the places that either gained or lost 25 percent of their population.

Figure 3: Percent Change in Small Town Population, 1990 to 2014map

Source: IBRC, using U.S. Census Bureau data

It is obvious that even within the metro/non-metro dichotomy, the experience of small towns has varied. While small towns near Indianapolis have grown 143 percent, those near Evansville, Terre Haute, Columbus and Michigan City have lost population on the whole (see Table 4).

Table 4: How Small Town Growth Varied by Metro Area

Metro Area Number
of
Small Towns
in 1990
Small Town Population Change since 1990
1990 2014 Numeric Change Percent Change
Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson 74 130,783 318,195 187,412 143%
Muncie 6 11,537 18,432 6,895 60%
Fort Wayne 15 36,406 52,568 16,162 44%
Bloomington 4 6,852 9,771 2,919 43%
Gary 24 63,076 89,538 26,462 42%
Elkhart-Goshen 5 11,168 14,616 3,448 31%
Louisville 24 37,632 46,403 8,771 23%
South Bend-Mishawaka 7 8,375 10,028 1,653 20%
Kokomo 2 3,160 3,485 325 10%
Lafayette-West Lafayette 15 16,564 17,629 1,065 6%
Cincinnati 10 19,789 20,945 1,156 6%
Evansville 12 25,583 25,195 -388 -2%
Terre Haute 24 34,180 33,268 -912 -3%
Columbus 5 3,586 3,473 -113 -3%
Michigan City-La Porte 9 13,694 12,937 -757 -6%

Source: IBRC, using U.S. Census Bureau data

Summary

Overall, Indiana’s total population grew 19 percent between 1990 and 2014. Approximately half of the state’s small towns experienced growth during this time period. In general, small towns located in MSAs grew much faster than those in more rural parts of the state. Excel Download this small town population change spreadsheet for a closer look at your area.

Notes

  1. Rachel Strange, “Growth and Decline in Indiana’s Small Towns,” InContext, November-December 2015, www.incontext.indiana.edu/2015/nov-dec/article3.asp.
  2. A change of +/- 5 residents is categorized as no change.