Mark Bennett: Some see Parke County as a 'remote worker's paradise'

Sep. 17—Ken Beck and his wife Pat sat on a sidewalk bench outside the Urban Farmchic on a sunny Wednesday afternoon along Rockville's town square.

Teenagers began walking into the shop for drinks and snacks from its coffee and lunch bar, which is surrounded by rustic home-decor items, relics and boutique clothing. "It's after-school time," explained Nicole Bonomo, a lifelong Rockville resident working Urban Farmchic's counter.

The Becks quietly chat outside on the bench. The Michigan couple were visiting Parke County's rural scenery with friends who own a farm there. The Becks hail from Traverse City, a town of 15,525 residents on a bay near Lake Michigan.

"There's a lot of people, that are not retirees, who are moving [to Traverse City] because it's a really nice place, and they can do their work from home anywhere," Ken Beck said.

Parke County is primed to experience a similar niche. At least, that's the expectation laid out in "The State of the Rural Economy in Indiana," a new report released this month by a team of Ball State University economists.

Parke ranks among the state's top 20 counties projected for growth in the post-COVID-19 era, according to the Ball State report. The criteria factors in the percentage of residents working remotely, housing availability, quality of life (based on a balance of the local labor and housing markets) and the presence of a school with an A or B grading. Parke County ranked ninth overall.

It boasts the second-highest percentage of remote workers (6.5%) among the rural counties, the 12th-best quality-of-life calculation and the high rating of the North Central Parke Community School Corp.

"Places like Rockville that have amenities that people would want are going to be targets of a relocation [wave] at a degree they never would've imagined," said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State.

Only one other rural county among the top 20 in Ball State's calculations has a higher percentage of residents working remotely — LaGrange in northern Indiana at 9.4%.

Parke County has "seen an uptick in remote workers," said Jim Meece, a Parke County commissioner.

With its rural setting of rolling farm fields and forests, Parke doesn't possess big industrial employers and relies on agriculture and tourism to fuel its economy. "But now you have access to do some jobs remotely," Meece said. "I think we're going to see a significant uptick in the next few years."

The national sea-change of adults working remotely from their homes, prompted by employers trying to cope with isolation necessitated by COVID-19, has continued beyond the pandemic's peak. Millions of Americans could, in theory, now work for big-city-based companies while living hundreds of miles away in less hectic settings. The numbers quadrupled from 2020 to 2021, Hicks said.

To read the study

—Ball State University's study, "The State of the Rural Economy in Indiana," can be viewed online at

As of August, a biweekly U.S. Census Bureau survey showed that 26.5% of adults worked remotely at least one day of the previous week and 14.4% did so full-time. Indiana lagged only slightly, with 21.4% of adults doing some remote work and 11.1% working fully remote. Hicks expects the remote workforce to grow to more than half of all workers, at least part-time, through the next two decades.

'Slower pace, safer environment'

Back at the Urban Farmchic on the Rockville square, Nicole Bonomo understands why Parke County might be an attractive destination for work-from-anywhere people. It's the same place that draws more than a million visitors each October for the 10-day Covered Bridge Festival, where they wander through the county's 31 covered bridges, eat pumpkin ice cream and buy handmade items.

"For somebody that has kids, it's the small-town community and the safer environment," said Bonomo, a 38-year-old Rockville High School graduate.

That's exactly the atmosphere that remote worker Eric Lear has found since he, his wife Heather and their 3-year-old daughter moved from Indianapolis to Rockville last year. "It's just a slower pace," Eric Lear said Friday morning. And, "it's obviously a little bit safer," he added.

The couple experienced small incidents, like delivered packages being stolen, at their previous home in downtown Indianapolis. Also, Lear's 19-mile commute to his job as a supply-chain analyst at an Indianapolis warehousing firm took 45 minutes.

Before the pandemic, his wife's job with an Indy software company allowed her to work remotely a couple days per month. That shifted to full-time remote work once COVID hit, and she continues to work remotely. Lear decided to find a job that allowed him to do the same, got it and the couple chose to relocate to Rockville, where both sets of their parents live. If not for those family ties, their destination might have been another place in the Hoosier countryside.

"We definitely would've picked a rural area," Lear said. "I don't know if it would've been Parke County."

Metros close, when needed

For many remote workers, rural living can be more practical in Indiana, said Hicks of Ball State. Some may need to make occasional in-person appearances at their company, requiring a drive or plane trip. Nearly 90% of Hoosiers live within a 90-minute drive from major airports in Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, Evansville or Fort Wayne, unlike Great Plains states where metros can be five hours away.

"If you were to lay out a geography for remote work, Indiana would be an ideal location," Hicks said.

Indiana policymakers can't assume it's an automatic choice for such workers, though. Some counties on the Ball State top 20 have low ratings in housing stock and quality of life. The researchers didn't measure quality of life on the number of attractive amenities, a figure hard to define, but instead on the premise that in places with a higher quality of life will lure new residents willing to pay more for housing to live there. Low crime rates, broadband access and recreational opportunities are among the top priorities, but well-funded, good schools were the No. 1 selling point for relocating workers.

Communities without an A or B graded school didn't make the Ball State top 20.

"The challenge for many places [in Indiana] is, schools have not been updated for a long time," Hicks said. While spending doesn't always determine the quality of a public school, "at some point, facilities matter," Hicks said.

While Parke County contains the requisite good-rating school, it's working to expand its broadband access, with four companies bidding to spread solid internet connections "all over the county within the next year," Meece hopes. Public sewer systems could extend to northern Parke County, joining others with that service. And a recent housing study revealed the county has high-end homes that "get snatched up pretty quickly," Meece said, alongside an aging 60- to 70-year-old housing stock and open spaces for those wishing to build. Parke's housing stock ranks 49th-best among all Indiana counties in the Ball State measurement.

Kirby Kirkpatrick and his wife, Paula, both operate businesses remotely and moved in 2015 from Hendricks County to Parke County, based on a realtor's suggestion. They surprisingly found less traffic and more outdoors opportunities like Turkey Run and Shades state parks, festivals and entertainment, he said. Kirkpatrick's business — Success Express, involving promotional products, business training and life coaching — only requires a good internet connection for him to run it remotely. Rockville has that, though Kirkpatrick added, "that's something the county does need a little bit more of."

Otherwise, the 50-year-old Kirkpatrick considers Parke County "a remote worker's paradise."

"Parke County should be ready to boom, with all it has to offer," he said.

It's an era that could change the destiny of small towns and rural Indiana, at least those willing to adapt.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or