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Symposium on Small Towns challenges narrative of rural decline

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MORRIS – Rural leaders and supporters need to argue against the prevailing narrative that rural is dying. In fact, specific demographic data and larger geographic trends indicate good news for the future of small towns.

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That was one message from this year's Symposium on Small Towns, hosted by the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris on June 4 and 5, which focused on myths and opportunities related to rural migration.

“We cannot continue to portray rural successes as exceptions,” said Ben Winchester, a research fellow with University of Minnesota Extension, in his opening keynote.

“If we change the backdrop behind rural to be something positive, the successes are the everyday and then we can move forward. … We have to rewrite the narrative because it’s just not accurate.”

Although the narrative about rural population is largely negative, Winchester argued the data doesn’t back that up.

The rural population has gone up 11 percent since 1970, but the relative percentage of people living in rural areas has decreased – there are more people living in rural areas, but they make up a small percentage of the total population, Winchester said.

One caveat of studying rural data is that some areas that were formerly rural – Blue Earth County, for example – are now considered urban. Pulling out those former small towns can skew data, often to look like rural home values or incomes are on the decline, Winchester said.

While the overall population is increasingly mobile – between 41 and 44 percent of all people move during a five-year period – there are migration trends that are favorable for small towns.

People in their 30s and 40s are increasingly moving to rural areas, although their numbers may not make up for the young people and seniors who are leaving, Winchester said.

But, these returners or newcomers have been moving to small town areas since the 1970s, despite the fact that small towns have done little to try and recruit or retain them.

“The future of our small towns isn’t based on our past – it’s based on who’s here now and who’s going to be here,” said Winchester.

“We do want to talk about the changes that occur in small towns, but we need to get away from the notion that if something is going to change in our small town it’s going to die.”

Winchester offered three primary opportunities for small towns to grow: engaging immigrant populations, retaining aging baby boomers, and attracting millennials.  

The retiring baby boomers looking to move into maintainable, accessible senior housing options will free up existing housing stock in small towns.

Transfer payments, money that comes from retirement like Social Security payments, currently make up one in five dollars in a rural economy, a number that will continue to increase, Winchester said.  

Options for the millennial generation can also benefit small towns. Millennials currently have low home ownership and a low migration rate, primarily because of their high student debt. Low cost of living can attract these young people to rural areas.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, argued that we need to reframe our ideas about migration to reflect a new normal, the age of return migration.

Typically, we think of migration as a person leaving one place to live in another. Russell said he thinks of migration through a people perspective – people connect places.

Existing migration trends show that people leave rural areas for urban areas, but eventually come back.

“This is the dominant pattern of our era… this is the migration pattern that defines our lives today,” said Russell.

However, Russell also argued that these trends are global, and less tied to individual towns or regions or states that we may believe. Migration is more affected by global economic drivers that have shifted from manufacturing to the “knowledge economy” to the “legacy economy,” which exports talents from universities to other areas, including small towns.

“Migration is not zero sum,” Russell said. “It is not place failure. It is not a negative outcome. It is one person connecting two places.”

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Kim Ukura
Kim Ukura has served as the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune since August 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2008 with degrees in English and journalism. She earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2010. Prior to returning to Morris to work at the Sun Tribune, she worked in trade publishing. 
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