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Expert says rural America thriving

Slow death of small towns exaggerated, according to U of M research fellow

July 14, 2012
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

LAMBERTON - The Southwest Regional Development Commission welcomed rural optimist Ben Winchester as a special guest speaker at its annual meeting on Thursday night in Lamberton.

Winchester is a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality and was invited to speak to the nine-county regional association about the "brain gain" in rural Minnesota.

Winchester has been studying population trends in rural areas of the region, and he says the news is good in spite of a lot of gloom-and-doom about the death of small towns foretold by the closing of businesses, hospitals, schools and churches.

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Photo by Steve Browne
Ben Winchester, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, spoke at the Southwest Regional Development Commission’s annual meeting about the “brain gain” in rural Minnesota on Thursday evening.

"The research base does not support the notion that if X closes the town dies," Winchester said. "Only three Minnesota towns have dissolved in the past century. It's not our fault the rural economy is restructuring due to globalization. Not every town can be a regional center."

What the data shows is that though the rural population has been declining in terms of relative percentages because of urban growth, the number of people living in rural areas has been increasing in terms of absolute numbers since 1970.

Between 1990 and 1999, 2.2 million more Americans moved from the city to the country than vice versa. One in five Americans still live in rural areas, and studies consistently show that about 51 percent of Americans surveyed say they'd like to live in a more rural area or small town.

Furthermore, the statistics about rural population loss are skewed by the fact that formerly rural areas get reclassified as "urban" as they thrive and population increases, Winchester said.

Population loss from small town America is largely in the 20- to 24-year-old age cohort, according to Winchester. But the loss of young people is offset by the gain in people in three over-30 age cohorts, who are better educated, have marketable skills, are often self-employed and most importantly bring their children with them.

Studies about the newcomers revealed some surprising things.

"Only one-third of newcomers have a previous connection to the area," Winchester said. "Sixty-eight percent have at least a bachelors degree, 67 percent have incomes higher than $50,000 and 51 percent have children. They are generally leaving a career and are underemployed in their current situation. Employment is not a factor in their move, quality of life trumps all."

Newcomers who participated in the study cited three factors: a slower pace of life, safety and security and the low cost of housing.

Furthermore, the migration of educated and skilled people to rural areas has been occurring without anyone doing anything to encourage it.

"We continually hear that people want control of their lives again," Winchester said. "It's like a rebirth of the American experience."

Winchester finished his talk by outlining possible strategies for small towns to get information to and create personal connections with potential newcomers and get them involved in community leadership roles.

"I don't want to use the term 'brain drain' anymore," Winchester said.



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