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Tuesday Talk: Why are small towns dying?

March 22, 2011 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

Minnesota’s latest Census figures don’t paint a promising future for many rural communities. In fact, of the 37 counties that lost population since the 2000 Census all but one were rural. Now most towns rely on the strength of their nearby regional center for survival, making adequate infrastructure crucial to the countryside’s preservation.

Why are small towns dying?

What policy direction do we need to move rural communities forward?

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  • Lynn Schurman says:

    March 22, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Small towns are dying because they are losing all of their retail businesses who can’t compete with the big box stores in the larger regional cities. Most small towns are lucky if they can keep a gas station and a local bar or cafe going.

    The other two factors that are increasing the death of small towns in consolidation of the schools and in some cases consolidation of the Catholic Churches.

  • Jim Armstrong says:

    March 22, 2011 at 8:54 am

    The answer is quite simple: the consolidation of farms, which are the result of the farming factory system.  The small town is the service center for farmers—that is the entire reason it exists.  No farmers, no town, unless the town can somehow figure out a way to become a manufacturer.  But there is a limit to this depopulation: the factory farming system is dependent on cheap oil, and cheap oil is on the way out.  There is no way we can continue to have 2% of the population feeding the rest of us: farming will be more labor intensive in the future, and the towns that figure out how to attract clusters of small scale organic farms will have an advantage.  Especially if they figure out how to add value to farming production—for example, canning or freezing, or food processing; another idea is food tourism (clusters of farmers market/restaurants, for example).  The cities will have to eat, and the country will have to grow the food.

  • Hugh Curtler says:

    March 22, 2011 at 8:58 am

    As a father of two sons who left this small town for the Twin Cities, I think I would say it is because there isn’t enough challenging work in the rural areas. Both boys sought interesting work for several years after college, but gave up and went to the ‘burbs where they now live and work. I think this is a pattern that repeats itself in these small towns. It is sad, because there is a core of values that holds rural people together and which seems to be missing in urban areas.

  • Everett Flynn says:

    March 22, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Well, for one thing, we need to make peace with LGA and stop trying to shoot it in the head every year.  The ridiculous increases in property taxes across the state probably have disproportionate in smaller communities. 

    We need a strategic plan for state financing—a plan that makes a long-term, if not permanent commitment to LGA as the proper and smart way to maintain equivalent standards of living across all communities in our state.  That strategic plan should also explore all possible benefits to be found in combining municipalities and/or the provision of essential services wherever possible in order to eliminate more of the costs of administrative overhead/bureaucracy.

  • Mike C says:

    March 22, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Towns were rail road stops for farmers. Now we do not rely so heavily on the rail but on trucks. In Minnesota we rely so heavily on tourism and entertainment that if you do not provide this to the surrounding areas, you just are not going to survive. Example, Hinckley vs Pine City. Restaurants are opening in Hinckley and closing in Pine City, why because Hinckley has a stop - the Casino. Pine City has Wal-Mart. Two different clients. One is shopping and the other is getting out for the evening for a concert or to throw a bunch of quarters into a pit only to hope for more quarters to come down the chute. Towns need to sit down and create a 5, 10 and 20 year growth and revitalization plan to become relevant again. They also need to go to businesses and show them that they are a great place to set up manufacturing and processing. The towns need to clean up main street and make it appealing again and they need to get the local community involved. Thank you

  • Bruce says:

    March 22, 2011 at 9:48 am

    School busses. Once people no longer had to bring kids to town to go to school they were released to go someplace else to do their business.

  • Francis Lemke says:

    March 22, 2011 at 10:08 am

    I bought property and lived for many years in Laporte, Mn. We ran a store and a laundromat in town. We also raised cows on our farm. The small towns struggle and they always have. They simply cannot provide all the services which people demand. Farming as a stand-alone business is almost dead in most areas except the big farm areas in the western and southern parts of Minnesota. People live on ‘farms’ and do some ‘farming’ sort of as a hobby, supporting it with earnings from some other job or business. As the cost of commuting increases more and more people will simply opt to live where the jobs are. I think eventually only the wealthy and retired (with good incomes)will live in the rural areas. The rest will sell out, get what they can and go live where they will be close to jobs and health care. It’s just a matter of time.

  • Lois Braun says:

    March 22, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Jim Armstrong has it right:  the reason is the consolidation of farms.  He’s also right that megafarms are not sustainable, because they are so utterly dependent on fossil fuels, which are in decline.  The solution is to find ways to promote small organic farms.

    Small towns also need to promote recreational opportunities for their citizens, in both the arts and in things like bike trails and parks.  These are especially important for keeping young people.  When I lived in a rural area it was the lack of such things that drove me crazy.  Montevideo is a good example of a small town with a large number of local organic farms and a vibrant art scene.

  • Nancy says:

    March 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

    If you define The American Dream as the ability to own your own small business or family farm, then small towns are really just another symptom of the death of the American Dream. Large, corporate farms and Walmart type of corporations have made it impossible for a family to compete. Small towns, which were once made successful by family owned hardware and mercantile shops no longer have any ability to offer jobs or successful business when the competition is the mega corporations.

  • Arthur Hogenson says:

    March 22, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I grew up in a small town near Mankato, and couldn’t wait to leave.  I even dropped out of college at Mankato to move to the cities.  After being in the Minneapolis area for the last 49 years I still love it, and now live on the edge of downtown, thinking even the suburbs are too far away.  The good jobs are in cities but more than that the good life is in cities if you want good restaurants and plays and fine music.  Living 30 or more miles away from the cities will be less and less desirable unless good public transportation is availlable.  As Bill Maher said, “The reason small towns are small is because people don’t want to live there.”  His is a humorist response but with a lot of truth in it.

  • Jim Ruen says:

    March 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

    The town where I live was a thriving rural retail center when I grew up here 50 some years ago. Only a couple of farm supply businesses remain, with the remainder mostly tourist based businesses. At the time the average size of my fellow students farms was 160 acres. Today the average farm size is still relatively small with off farm wage earners or retired owners the norm. However, the bulk of the acres are farmed by very large farmers. It would be nice to say it is the fault of factory farming or big box stores, but that would be too simple. An ag historian/economist once explained farm size this way…“it’s all a matter of how many acres can you plant in a day.”
    There are a finite number of planting days in the year, however, where my dad struggled to plant 30 acres a day, today’s farmer can plant hundreds of acres a day. Fewer farmers are needed, thus fewer farm suppliers, fewer clothiers, fewer drug stores, etc. That carries over to fewer potential employees for a business that does want to open.
    Robotic farm equipment is now available that allows the combine harvester driver to control the tractor and grain cart driving along side. Soon even today’s largest farms will be considered inefficient in the face of such technology as drone machinery becomes common.
    Combine that reality with our desire and willingness to drive extra miles to get a lower price and we have starved what local businesses were left.
    Until you agonize over the loss of the local cobbler or hat maker, stop agonizing over the loss of the small farmer. Until you stop buying processed food from the giant food company and other retail goods from the factory in China and seek out the small local supplier, stop agonizing over factory farming and big box stores and all the rest.
    People can and are making choices that do make a difference. Will that bring the small towns back to what they were? Of course not, but some of them will survive if we want them to do so. There are small farmers trying to survive and produce food, but they can’t compete with the price points of the 10,000 acre farmer anymore than that local cobbler could compete with the price points of a shoe factory in Vietnam. We as consumers will have to forego our food costing us less than 10% of our yearly income if we want the quality and productivity of those small farmers to be rewarded.
    It’s our choice.

  • Dave Nass says:

    March 22, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Hugh Curtler’s comment on young people leaving for economic opportunity is right on. This is just one refection of trends that have been occuring since the 80’s. The centers like Worthington, Marshall, and Willmar are doing ok, but the small towns are shrinking. It will take some astute thinking and great political and economic will to intervene in the economic trends.  I doubt there is enough of either to stop the trends.
    I enjoyed living in Marshall for 21 years, but the lure of the Cities got me also.

  • Bridget Cusick says:

    March 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Agree on challenging work; disagree ENTIRELY on the “core of values” piece. This meme needs to stop being repeated; it’s a small-town (and frequently GOP-adopted) form of upsmanship based on absolutely nothing. Growing up in a town of 2,500 and moving to the Twin Cities for college (and not going back), I would take the values I have encountered here in a large city—including openness, inclusivity, and candor—over some of the biases present in small towns any day of the week and twice on Sundays. There are good things about growing up and living in small towns and bad things about them—just as there are about cities.

  • Dan says:

    March 22, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Small towns are dying because no one wants to live there.  The list is endless but jobs, infrastructure, isolation, health care, and other services available in the cities are not there.  There is also not enough diversity of entertainment, intellectual stimulation, shopping, and other intangabiles in smaller towns.

  • Darielle Dannen says:

    March 22, 2011 at 11:30 am

    My husband and I both grew up in small towns and have both relocated to Minneapolis.  The good jobs and the favorable amenities are all located in cities and I love living in Minneapolis.  I wonder if we should worry less about the loss of small towns and instead spend more time improving our cities.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    March 22, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Amen, Everett.  As a child, my mother and sister and I would travel from North Dakota to Minnesota on shortish trains that carried the US mail.  On the back end of each was one passenger car with a fellow selling sandwiches. 

    Not only have these trains disappeared (the mail now travels by air), but intercity and interstate bus service is now gone from most small towns.  With the aging of the population plus the movement of young people to metro areas where they can find jobs, private autos are pretty much the only way to get around.

    Doctors with small practices can no longer afford to keep their offices open on the income they receive from Medicare. Closing them leaves seniors as far as 50 miles from the nearest clinic and clinic employees out of a job. If we care about this and other small-town needs, we’ll have to pay the cost by raising revenue through progressive taxation. 

    I’d suggest beefing up LGA instead of trying to destroy it; subsidizing travel by large vans between small towns and metro areas; subsidizing community clinics that serve a small town and its surrounding farms; and encouraging green energy projects to locate where the rural environments suit a lifestyle their potential employees would like to keep.

  • Brandan Fiedler says:

    March 22, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Chisholm happens to be a bright spot when it comes to small towns.  Chisholm’s population actually increased by 16 people.  As of the 2000 census, Chisholm had a population of 4,960.  As of the 2010 census, Chisholm had a population of 4,976.  Our biggest industry here is mining.  However, we have been trying to bring in new businesses.  However, we have city councilors who do NOT want new businesses to come to Chisholm and we have had property taxes increased due to Local Government Aid cuts.

    The State of Minnesota can help small towns thrive by not cutting local government aid and continuing the JOBZ (Job Opportunity Building Zones).

    Citizens of the small towns can do their part by NOT voting in incumbents who don’t want anything to change.  There are qualified people to serve as city councilors and mayors who have the vision to bring new businesses and diversify the economy in their area.

  • Jim says:

    March 22, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    I grew up in a rural, mostly agricultural area in Michigan. Our high school graduating class had 36 people in it.

    Ok, small towns are fading away .. but it that necessarily bad? Yes, for those who continue to live in them, especially the elderly. But in a broader sense maybe not?

  • Bill says:

    March 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Farming and natural resources no longer drive the rural economy as they once did.

    The loss of the Main Street business has caused local leadership to suffer.  Consolidation at all levels - banking, business, education and health care have left small towns without empowered leadership and resources.  Managers are rural branches of mega banks can barely make a car loan without authorization from hq.  Twenty years ago, these banks were owned by local people who could make decisions that benefited the community.

  • Jerry Linser says:

    March 22, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    You all have said everything that has needed to be said but one more thing.

    The rural policy of “Bigger is Better”
    myth pushed for by corporate America has choked rural areas the most.  This policy is putting a crunch on our economy today as we share these ideas.

    To reverse this trend, small producers of food stuffs need to have the support equivalent to that which agribusinness now enjoys.  There are many folks out there who would love to do just that if they could make a living at it.

  • Stan says:

    March 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    The small town where I went to high school has a major problem keeping young people in the community.  Two problems are contributing to this.  One is that property values are way too high to be affordable for someone in their 20s.  The community happens to be a significant tourist and vacation home destination.  The vacation home industry, I suspect, has been a major driver in the exorbitant home prices I see advertised.  With wealthy people from other parts of the state and the country willing to pay upwards of $200,000 for a modest 3 bedroom home, how can people of lesser means purchase one for themselves? 

    The second problem I’ve seen is a common one.  The jobs just don’t pay enough for young families to make ends meet.  Part of this has to do with the fact that the major industry, tourism, is not very lucrative for the service workers who make the industry possible. 

    Policy solutions?  Incentives for young families to purchase existing homes in rural areas, disincentives for vacation homes, and diversification of rural economies so they don’t rely on one industry to sustain themselves.

  • Mary Alice says:

    March 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    For decades, the popular thinking—the common wisdom—is that bigger is better.  What is the millionaire thinking when he merges with yet another big company?  Maybe efficiency.  Maybe power.  Maybe more profit.  I believe that we could encourage the belief that “small is beautiful.”  Small town culture is certainly beautiful and amenities could be gradually —maybe even quickly—developed.  With modern technology, we have different prospects if only we appreciate and promote new ways of thinking about contentment or happiness.

  • KJC says:

    March 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I think there are people who would enjoy living in a small town.  But?  There is so little opportunity.  The mass migration from the farms and rural areas… over the last 100 years… mirrors where the job (and other) opportunities have been. 
    There are plenty of factors, like farm consolidation, that have accelerated this trend.  We moved away from having 40% of our population working to produce our food… now it’s more like 4%.  I see little chance of “turning the clock back,” however charming that might sound.
    The industrial economy displaced the farm economy as the big employer.  Over the last 30 years that is now going into decline.  So far the “information economy” hasn’t become a similarly pervasive employer that brings prosperity to huge percentages of employee/citizens around our whole great country… now THAT is a problem that we MUST deal with.

  • Don Knudson says:

    March 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    I grew up in rural America 50 years ago and saw the technology and economic changes that unraveled the lifestyle of post WWII rural life.  Bigger machinery required fewer workers.  Debt became required to afford the machinery as each year the pressure was on to expand, buy out the neighbors, have more land to pay for the machinery.

    Small towns lost their purpose with the changing economic reality.  Those changes made public education the key to college and a job in the city.  This has been a 60 or more year trend which continues.

    I remember a definition from sociology I learned long ago.  “A town or city is a geographical expression of an economic reality.”  Until the economic reality changes to draw people out to rural areas of the state, there will be little opportunity to grow communities.

    Meanwhile, I sit nostalgic with memories of life on the farm as a child 60 years ago as I live in a condo, owning 1/4 of a quad housing structure. I live in a formerly small town transformed into an outer ring suburb because my car and the public roads take me to work in Minneapolis where there still is a job. I get a piece of paper every two weeks with numbers on it that says it is money. I never really see the money, only the promise that is exists.

    That’s all I have in this world:  A small place to live, a car and numbers in an electronic bank account.  I own no land on which to grow food like I once helped provide, there is no place to grow a garden.  I can drive on public roads to visit other people’s businesses and use the magic card I have from the bank to buy food I eat or clothes to wear.  I have another account with numbers in it that says I have some money to use when I quit working.  But those numbers are very changeable lately, and much smaller than I need as I imagine life retired.  So this is the life I got by getting an education and leaving the farm. 

    When I return to the place of my youth, change has wiped away the farmstead.  The rural neighborhood where I lived is vacant of small farms and people.  My memories are all that remain.  And those who still live around in the neighboring small town seem sad to me.  And I’m sad too. 

    What have we all become?  Are we really leaving the world better than we found it?  And what future do our grand children have in this fickle world of economic promises unkept in the land of empty shells of buildings reminding us of once vital rural geographical expressions now in economic and social decline?

    Rural kids will keep on leaving unless there is an economic reason to keep them there.  I hope there is.  Somebody has to grow food, milk cows, raise chicken, turkeys and hogs.  And maybe some day a person can do that while getting that piece of paper with a number on it that says there’s enough money in the bank. 

    It’s amazing how the numbers on electronic bank statements are more important than the corn in the field and the cows in the barn.  I wonder who makes those numbers up?

  • Jeneiol says:

    March 29, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Well, if being in a rural area kills banking, I’ll give you an example that disproves that:  Our little town, now down to 500 people with the last sentence, has two banks, both branches of banks in other small towns, and a credit union that is growing and thriving, and a lending agency.

  • Jeneiol says:

    March 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Ah but these things are there if you look for them.  And in a small town, people know that they don’t have stuff just handed to them, they have to work to make things happen.  I know that college counselors like small town kids, because these kids often have developed leadership skills in their small school and by observing the leaders in their towns.

  • Chris Thompson says:

    November 14, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Small towns for many years have relied on Farming/Agriculture to fuel there towns. It is very simple to figure out why small towns become smaller every 10 years when polls are done. If I have a 500 farmers in area then you have 300 farmers, the people who live in those towns, and have businesses now have to lay off people because there are less farmers, and they have been the heart and soul of the towns. So the town becomes smaller, because of less jobs then we are down to less the 200 farmers, and now those small business have a hard time staying around. They raise the prices because people really can’t afford it and will either do with out, or when the travel bigger city, Willmar (where I am at) to buy those items, they don’t go all the time and they buy massive amounts at once. They might buy local sometimes but its when they run low and its few items. At some point those business can no longer support themselves, so out of business they go.

    How to stop the negative loss of jobs and get people back in your town. As a community (you don’t need you mayor or other leaders, they seem to be more worried about next election season even if they just got elected this goes for both parties) create a business idea list, you plan a day to get together, it is best have vote comity of leaders, who either have strong business back ground, or hard working, or getter attitude, you don’t want just type of person, like business owners will only look for makes them a lot of money, and an average Joe might cost you time and money with no results. When you meet, people should have business and ideas written down if one person shares and idea that another has already shared their is no need to repeat the idea move on with other ideas. Write the down on a white board, the ideas can be anything from starting new business or seeking out other businesses to bring to the area. Then vote on you favorites vote for 10 because some could fail. Remember what makes you unique.