How do we use our land assets to achieve community goals?
Very little development has occurred in Wabash County over the past two decades. Between 2000 and 2019, fewer than 600 acres transitioned from agricultural or undeveloped to developed. That’s roughly 30 acres per year – the size of eight blocks in downtown Wabash. Compared to other counties in the region, this growth is small and represents just two-tenths of one percent of the total land mass of the county.
One of the primary assets in the county is the diverse collection of places from urban to rural to natural. But the rural spaces dominate. At just over 220,000 acres (345 square miles), agricultural land encompasses 82 percent of the county’s 412 square miles. At the current growth trend, it would take until 2094 to develop just one percent of the county’s total agricultural land. In a recent series of Imagine One 85 focus groups, local leadership stressed the importance of finding places for positive community growth.
“Farming and agriculture are essential parts of our identity as a community. We can maintain that legacy, and identify key areas for additive growth. It’s not a zero sum game. It’s about balance, planning, and a realistic understanding of the inhibitors to population growth.”
-Local Leader, Imagine One 85 Focus Group conversations
Community zoning maps support modest expansions, especially related to housing and employment districts. Of the 23,000 acres zoned for residential, only 60 percent is currently built. If the remaining 9,500 acres were developed – even at the low density of one unit per acre – the communities could create more than 6,650 housing units or homes for 15,000 new residents. Industrial growth capacity is even greater with only 29 percent of the zoned footprint currently developed.
Physical growth and development are not limited to outward expansion. There is significant opportunity for redevelopment and reinvestment in each of the communities across the county. And there are a number of advantages to this including re-utilizing existing infrastructure, increasing property values, and adding richness and life back into legacy neighborhoods. Local property developer Justin Gillespie sees particular advantages to this type of work in the county’s smaller communities.
“To grow our county as a whole will require the involvement and participation of every community. Each community has something to offer no matter how big or small. The challenge is to find what characteristics, services, or historical significance make those places great and capitalize on them. This has been my focus in my hometown. It just takes the courage of a few to make the leap and then build on the momentum.”
-Justin Gillespie, Local Developer
Mr. Gillespie is starting to leave a mark on Lagro. In just two years of work, the hobbyist developer has already transformed his small stretch of Washington Street, starting with a major remodel of a mid-1800’s home. Since posting the property to AirBnB as a local lodging option, the unit has been occupied every weekend with visitors from Chicago and beyond. He’s since moved on to bigger plans next door and is closing on the final stages of his downtown Lagro Brewpub. Located right along the Wabash Trail, Justin hopes to capitalize on the growing vibrancy in and around the county.
An initial project for Justin Gillespie in downtown Lagro pictured above. This structure, built in the mid-1800’s, was completely renovated and is now rented as an AirBnB with great success.
Imagine One 85 is a process to confront the population challenge head on. Through direct engagement with the community and stakeholders and in-depth analysis of the county’s conditions and trends, the Steering Committee is working to develop a strong and visionary plan to help lead the communities of the county toward growth. A recent presentation by the group revealed that the county would need to grow by 85 new families or households each year in order to recapture it’s previous population high in 25 years. The “+85” initiative is emerging as a central recommendation of the work, with strategies focused squarely at the challenge.
Do you care about these issues and want to get involved? On July 14 the Steering Committee will host an event to explore the challenges and potential of Wabash County. The Imagine One 85 Growth Summit will be a unique and interactive moment for community members to share and make a direct impact on their community. The meeting will take place from 6 to 8 PM on the Honeywell Plaza and include food and entertainment highlighting the best of Wabash County. Attendance is free and registration is available on the project website, www.imagineone85.org.
If you’re interested in the land use issue, demographics, or the analysis that has been completed through the Imagine One 85 process so far, check out the Reports & Analysis page for more information. Volume 2: Place, will be of particular relevance to this issue.
This is the fourth in a multi-part series developed to share the major findings of the Imagine One 85 analysis and community conversations. For more information on the content or reports please contact Imagine One 85 Project Manager Kyle May, firstname.lastname@example.org. The full series will also be shared on the process website, www.imagineone85.org.