Brown County’s Economic Engine?

economic engine

What is Brown “County’s” Economic Engine?
Spoiler Alert: It is NOT tourism.
Updated May 25, 2022

May 20, 2022. Nashville can’t rely on its tourism industry to fund infrastructure needs  by Joe Hren

Brown County Matters – Facebook Post Discussion

For Brown County, the overall beauty of the landscape and terrain is what has attracted residents, artists, and visitors.  Brown County is the most forested county in the State. The landscape also attracted the artists and led to the State creating the State Park.  Tourism emerged to serve the visitors.  Outdoor Recreation (OR) and an appreciation of the landscape – especially in the Fall, have been main attractors.

The MAIN REVENUE GENERATION “engine” for the county is RESIDENTS! The majority include individuals that live here and commute outside the county (or can work from home) for the better paying jobs, residents in occupations other than tourism, and retirees.

  • The Brown County Community Readiness Initiative, a survey and economic assessment conducted by the Ball State Economic and Research Institute, concluded that Brown County’s greatest potential for economic growth is not tourism, but as a bedroom community. – BC Democrat – Sara Clifford
  • The expansion of broadband within the county is a new and positive change. It supports the live her, work elsewhere philosophy.
  • The Regional Opportunity Initiative (ROI) in which Brown County is a member, have identifed that there are more good jobs in the region than individuals to fill them.

In 2019, 7,126 residents reported adjusted gross (taxable) income of $425 million dollars. This is the source of the revenue for the county government.  The county is primarily funded by income and property taxes.

A study in 2017 by Rockport Analytics identified that tourism accounted for 636 jobs and $12.2 million in wages and proprietor income.

An updated 2020 Rockport Analytic Study shows $12.1 million in wages.

Increases in Nashville’s assessed property values are the lowest in the county which means other residents are paying higher taxes to help fund the cost of government and infrastructure.

Government data indicates service level jobs are among the lowest paid. The Rockport Analytics study identifed “an average wage of $19,259 in gross wages.

The State is primarily funded by Sales Tax and Income Tax.  Increasing revenue from sales tax is the driver for subsiding the marketing of tourism via the innkeepers tax.

Revenue from the innkeeprs tax is a county assest. Review and approval of how this money is spent is the statutory responsiblity of the County Council.  The revenue from this tax can be spent on just about anything that leads to attracting tourists.

    • Examples:  A “music venue”, tourist center, historical preservation, wellness, agriculture, education,  recreation, etc.  Additional examples on types, categories and tourism related issues provided at Tourism-Wikipedia.  See also overtourism and too much tourism.
    • The Convention Visitors Commission (CVC) is responsible for developing a plan and budget and the Conventions Vistors Bureau (CVB) is provided funing to market tourism. Before the Music Center (which now uses the revenue for mortgage and operating expenses),  the CVB was given approximately 95% of the innkpeers tax revenue.  Results from the marketing strategies have not been made publically available.
    • The Commissioners are responsble for developing a County Comprehensive Plan that should include a vision for tourism.  The current plan does not include this vision.  Consequently, residents not involved in the tourims industry have no input on how and where the revenue from the innkeerps tax will be spent.  However, this can be easily changed by electing more resident focused representatives.

Brown County Music Center (BCMC).  The Project was led by innkeepers that benefirectlyitted indrectly from the support of county government and investment of tax dollars (more heads in bed) with no risk. Elected officials fast-tracked the process and refused to hold any public  meetings with the exception of the meeting needed to approve the project.

    • GUEST OPINION: Time will tell what music center’s impact will be, by Tim Clark. The stated aim for this project was to promote and support tourism and the tourism industry primarily in Nashville. In fact, it was stated at a June 2017 presentation at the Playhouse that when using the revenue from the innkeepers tax to finance a tourism-related project, the investment had to result in overnight stays, i.e., “ heads in beds.” This was not a true statement, and to my knowledge, was never retracted publicly. Revenue from the innkeepers tax can be used for any project that promotes tourism.

    • BCMC: Brown County Music Center (Maple Leaf): For the Record. History of the project.

County Economic Development Strategic Plan

    • Econ Development Strategic Plan and Timeline – The Plan was “accepted” for payment by the commissioners but not approved by the commissioners nor reviewed or approved at a formal meeting of the Redevelopment Commission (RDC). In addition, the public did not have the opportunity  to comment.
    • Dec 3, 2019. Brown County Democrat.  New county economic plan released By Sara Clifford
    • The entire 79-page plan first became public after a Nov. 20 public hearing with the Brown County Commissioners and Brown County Redevelopment Commission. However, neither group had read the entire plan by the time of the hearing, and the public hadn’t had an opportunity to see it yet.

County Economics

  • An income survey commissioneed by the County RDC identifed that 53.1% of county residents are in the low to moderate income level.  This qualified the county for federal planning grants. Approximately over 50% of students in the schools qualify for free or reduced lunches.
  • Income Trends 1999-2018. Trends on those reporting income of $50,000 or more are trending up. Trends on those making $30,000 and less trending down.

Trends in Tourism.

  • Nashville has identified its intent to be a “driver” of regional tourism.
  • From seasonal to year round.  Hard Truth Hills and The Brown County Music Center attract more year-round tourism. They also attract additional tourism ventures such as tourist home rentals, the planned resort at Rawhide Ranch and a new tiny house campground.
  • The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) voted against a 185 Site RV Campground.  Views expressed support for the project but not the location.
  • Despitre the increase in the number of tourists, state highways (46 and 135) and county roads will likely remain at two-lanes for the foreseeable future.
  • Another change is in the increase in the number of liquor licenses.
  • Mountain-Biking another new attraction.
  • Nov 19, 2021 — Out-Door Music — Nashville Town Council working on changes to the Noise Ordinance.  Nashville Noise Ordinance – For  the Record
    • DRAFT – Town Noise Ordinance  .”..It shall be unlawful under this ordinance to: “Intentionally create sound/noise louder than 90 decibels between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Sunday through Thursday or between 11:00 p.m. and 7 a.m. on Friday or Saturday.”
    • Brown County Matters – Facebook Post

Nashville – Development and Tax Strategy

  • Nashville includes most if not all of its territory in a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District. This means that the town (not the county) retain the increased property tax revenue as a result of  development.
  • Nashville has also identifed their desire to expand sewer service to areas outside the town limits without identifying a need. Expansion may help to spread the cost and maintance to more customers.
  • Nashvilles Strategic Advisor on the proposed Little Opry Apartment Complex: “And so to get sanitary sewer there and get people off septic, obviously is an EPA mandate. I’d love to see that.”
    • Brown County Democrat: GUEST OPINION: More evidence needed that sewers necessary, By Tim Clark
    • Unnecessary infrastructure costs (sewers for example) add to the cost of living. The Helmsburg rate of $92.50 is outrageous. And many residents may need help with reparing and replacing septic systems.


  • Brown County has one of the highest median home prices in the state. This reinforces the fact that there is still a demand for people to live her but generate income from outside the county.
  • The lack of “Affordable Housing” has been a recurring topic that market forces (supply/demand) have not resolved. The tourism industry may be especially effected by attracting workers at modest pay scales that can not afford to live in the county.
  • ROI Housing Study – Brown County’s section starts on page 43.
  • Avoid Gentrification?  Policies that lead to increases in the cost of living (taxes, utilities, housing) where the lower income residents are replaced with those with incomes in the middle to higher income levels.

Schools – Steady Decline in Enrollments 2008-2022 (Democrat, Nov 17, 2021 Board OKs budget for next year as enrollment declines

BC School Enrollment 2008 - 2022

  • Causes of the decline? State code changed in the 2008/09 period that allowed residents to send their kids to any public school without cost. Residents that commuted to jobs outside the county could choose schools in the surrounding counties. Home Schooling options also made it more attractive for parents to support this option. On demographics, we have one of the oldest median ages in the state. Low enrollment is also due to lower birth rates. And, high median home prices and lack of an inventory of homes in the starter (affordable) range may also be contributing to the decline. Most residents have always chosen to live here but commute outside the county for the better-paying jobs. Differences now may be the pay of jobs, and more competition for housing in the county which drives up prices.

Tax Policy

  • Given the tax base, the commissioners and council chose to rely on increases in income tax and keep property taxes low.  The income rate became one of the highest in the state and was doubled in 10 years, and maxed out. The county recently shifted policy from income to property.
  • Property tax rates have been among the lowest in the state.  This makes owning property, tourist rentals, and second homes more attractive. This also contribites to higher median home values.
  • 2021 Indiana Income Tax Rates by County page 3. Brown County rate: 025234 or2.5234%.  The max limit set by the state is 2.5% but they allow a cost-of living increase. The highest rate in the statye is Pulaski county at .032475*

Additional Information

  • Andy Rogers: Vision for Brown County and Nashville

    • “People say, ‘Well, we can’t change.’ But we can change and still retain some of the flavor of Brown County. We need people to live here. I’m in the tourist business but we don’t want to turn this town over to the tourists. You can go to Gatlinburg if you want to see what happens to a town that turns it all over to business. It’s not a town anymore—it’s a shopping center. We need people here. This town needs to be alive.”
    • “We don’t need to be slick and highly commercial. We need to be more country. Country is what we sell…. We need to maintain that. Once you destroy that, it won’t come back.” 
  • A study of tourism and economic sustainability by Tim Clark.  Provides context regarding tourism-related jobs and wages. Note: The proponents of the government-owned Music Center project claimed that the Music Center “….  could be what it takes to turn things around economically for Brown County.”  This article was written to offer another perspective.  The county is funded primarily by income and property tax.  

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