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The Journal Gazette

Counties a bit miffed over grades

Researchers say most appreciate the economic data

Don’t feel bad about your F in Government Impact and Economy, Steuben County. It’s just to let you know where to focus your efforts.

Officials at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research say the grades they handed out to Indiana’s 92 counties for seven different categories are just conversation starters, not indictments.

But some politicians remained ruffled.

“We’ve gotten mixed responses,” said Srikant Devaraj, senior research associate and project manager for the Center for Business and Economic Research. “Some have supported our idea and some have criticized it, too.”

The idea behind the Community Asset Inventory and Rankings was to offer a detailed look at the factors affecting the reputation of Indiana’s communities, giving decision makers and residents a data-focused assessment of things influencing the quality of life and economy in each county.

“Our analysis is unbiased. We just reported what is out there,” Devaraj said. “We haven’t manipulated any results.”

But not everyone was thrilled with the results of the center’s efforts. Especially at first.

“This report was pretty frank,” Devaraj admitted, but after the shock wore off, “people realized it’s a good thing, and said, ‘let’s move on and plan ahead as a community on how we can better these numbers.’ In the long term, we are pretty certain this is going to be helpful.”

Because, as Devaraj points out, there is always room for improvement.

“Hamilton County got a C in one category,” he said, citing Hamilton’s grade for Government Impact and Economy. “With this, now you can decide which factor to concentrate on long-term.”

The study recognized some things can’t change, and so while those factors were included, they weren’t graded. For example, Allen County will never have Steuben County’s lakes. And Steuben will never have mountains or the ocean. So the study’s authors divided the Public Amenities category into one for “static” amenities such as rivers and forests and another for “changeable” amenities, such as parks, cultural sites and trails.

John Stafford, director of the Community Research Institute at IPFW, understands some of the dilemmas facing the center in its study, because he often wrestles with the same questions. What’s important to understand, Stafford said, is that what this or any other study offers is just data. And the ways to look at that data are as varied as the individuals who do so.

“For example, urban counties and rural counties are just different, and that cuts both ways,” Stafford said. “There are assets that come with a large, metropolitan area; on the other hand, the per-capita tax burden is going to be higher in an urban county.”

It comes down to individual tastes and the trade-offs people are willing to make to get those things, he said. Some people want curbs and gutters, municipal sewers and to be able to walk to stores and businesses. They’re willing to accept higher crime rates, higher taxes and things like light and noise pollution to get them. Others want acreage and the tranquility of a country setting. They’re willing to deal with septic tanks, farm smells and having to drive everywhere in return. Each side knows its choice is the better one.

“Quality of life is one of those areas that to a certain extent is in the eye of the beholder,” Stafford said. “What you may value the most is not what someone else may value.”

The same holds true for businesses: Sometimes their needs are so specific that it’s not a matter of choosing which is the “better” county in which to locate, but finding the one place that meets all their needs. That makes studies like this one more of an inventory than an attempt to grade counties against each other.

Stafford said comparisons can be important, however.

“Virtually everybody in the country has higher educational attainment levels than they did 10 years ago,” he said. “But are we improving more rapidly or less rapidly compared to comparable communities? If everyone’s getting better but you’re getting better fast than others, that’s good. If not, you need to know that.”

Stafford said every study has value, if you know its limitations.

“You’ve got to be careful what you’re looking at and understand the difference between types of communities,” he said.