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Determining Rural Minnesota’s Capacity for Growth

July 02, 2014 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

When the residents of Tenney, near Breckenridge, voted to dissolve as a Minnesota city three years ago, the measure passed by an overwhelming two-to-one margin. When the votes were counted, the actual tally was a not-so-impressive 2 votes for dissolution, 1 vote against.

Funkley, near Bemidji with a population of 5 in the 2010 Census, is now Minnesota’s smallest incorporated city.

Though charming it may be, small towns wrestling with survival aren’t all that unique. The 2010 Census found 37 of Minnesota’s 87 counties lost population between 2000 and 2010. There were 543 cities with less than 1,000 residents, and 231 small cities had population counted between 1,000 and 6,000. All face challenges going forward.

“We’ve got a county (Lincoln) that peaked in population back in the 1930s,” said Jim Mulder, a former executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. The state’s 25 smallest counties have lost 13 percent of their population in the past 25 years, or about the same 30,000 people that reside in his current suburban hometown of Roseville.

If there were easy answers to put such rural areas back on the paths of growth and prosperity, local and regional leadership would have found them, Mulder said. But instead, he added, many of Minnesota’s smallest communities don’t have the human resources to even assess what strengths they might possess or analyze what infrastructure and public policies they might need to reverse their downward trends.

Mulder, a native of Renville, has been a progressive voice for rural Minnesota over the years. He served as an aide to Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., and was an Independent Party candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010. In addition to serving with the association of counties, he has also been involved with the University of Minnesota Extension Service and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas.

In an opinion article for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in March, Mulder warned that small towns and small counties face a crisis that extends to aging people living in poverty and substandard housing.

Minnesota 2020 has made similar arguments over the years, warning that more than 500 rural communities could slip into “ghost town” status unless they find new reasons for sustaining themselves as viable cities for the future.

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The late Gary DeCramer, from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, was collaborating with Minnesota 2020 on planning a multi-state study of rural development capacity when he died two years ago at Morris while attending meetings with the Center for Small Towns.

Among past positions, DeCramer served as state director for the USDA Rural Development office for Minnesota. In a meeting this week, Mulder agreed that a comprehensive study like DeCramer envisioned is still needed for rural Minnesota and similar areas of neighboring states.

The Extension Service and other groups have started some initial research along these lines. But areas of study that need attention include:

  • Demographic studies on rural aging, its impact on community leadership, education, housing and future services,
  • Assessment of public policies and their restricted uses based on local political divisions – city populations, county populations, townships, etc.
  • Cataloging infrastructure and community resources – what’s available and what would be needed for development.
  • Cataloging human capital. What local talents are we wasting? How might we match labor pools with business, industrial opportunities?

Government programs should be shaped to encourage countywide and regional development planning not restricted by municipal boundaries. For instance, Mulder said, residents of Olivia and Renville, within commuting distance of Willmar, benefit whenever a business expands in that city 20-plus miles away.

To further encourage fresh thinking, consider this collection of Census data:

The 543 Minnesota cities with fewer than 1,000 people have a total population of 182,069, or about the same as Rochester and Bloomington combined. Rural cities with from 1,000 to 6,000 residents have population of 482,742. That would make Minnesota’s largest city, or nearly 100,000 more people than Minneapolis’ 382,578.

When the people of Tenney voted to toss in the towel, they became part of a larger political entity known as Campbell Township. In many ways, that was forward thinking as well as a pragmatic assessment of Tenney’s future.

One notable example of communities working countywide to think in larger terms than just their city boundaries is offered by the people of Redwood County. The Redwood Area Development Corp. works that way and has both the human talent to make it work and backs it up with community and foundation capital as well.

Pat Dingels, executive director of the Redwood Area Community Foundation and community development specialist for Redwood Area Development Corp., said it isn’t easy to get rural folks to look beyond municipal or county borders. But, she added, it should be obvious that any development in or neighboring Redwood County benefits the entire region and its people.

That’s Mulder’s point as well. Visiting the leadership of rural communities shouldn’t mean visiting nursing homes and cemeteries, he said. “We shouldn’t look back at what we were; we should look at what we still can become.”

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Tzuel says:

    July 2, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Internet, internet, internet….Much f the area with population loss has no high speed access. Extremely short sighted on behalf of local and state officials.

    • Tim Gieseke says:

      July 7, 2014 at 8:08 am

      Tzuel - Any ideas on how you would package this?

  • Joe Vene - Beltrami County Commissioner / Immediat says:

    July 7, 2014 at 7:12 am

    The boundaries drawn (for the 87 Counties of Minnesota) are artificial:  they may identify us, but they do not define us.
    We work across these boundaries all the time through joint powers configurations and other devices.  The objective is to combine services where possible so as to create greater efficiencies and cost savings.

  • Lee Steinbrecher says:

    July 7, 2014 at 8:10 am

    JOBS are the answer. There is no reason to stay in an area that does not have ways of making a living. Most of rural Minnesota depends on agriculture or tourism. There is limited employment in those 2 fields for the young educated people of today. More government is not the answer, it only raises the tax rate and one of the things that businesses in rural Minnesota do not need are more taxes. I live in rural Minnesota and the main street in nearly empty because the real estate taxes are so high on the businesses that new ventures can not afford the rent to cover the tax.  In my opinion there is no easy fix for rural Minnesota.

    • Tim Gieseke says:

      July 7, 2014 at 10:24 am

      Society is transitioning from a hierarchical structure to a Node-Network structure in how business, services, and government is delivered.  These are two very different “thought boxes” and many in government and NGOs have not experienced it yet, much less consider its potential.

      I was “forced” to move into this new structure as my business needed to deliver ag-enviro solutions in a cost-effective and successful manner.  A shared governance model was revealed as I dismantled the top-down, 3-ring binder mentality.  The data, expertise and relationships reside in the whole, not any particular sector.  The challenge to people wanting to do something different is that it is hard to accept even the right different.

  • Dave nass says:

    July 7, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    My impression is politicians from the rural areas tend to be “aginers”. They might do better to follow lead of Iron Rangers who work for jobs in their area, but will vote for funds to expand transportation, education, infrastructure in general. Building coalitions is a direction that rural areas might consider.
    Cooperation on services is good, but a result of starving these social services for several administrations.
    The lack of internet and high speed communications also is factor.