In the face of decades-long decline, some wonder whether the effort to
save rural counties is a futile effort. Few of those doubters actually
live in small rural towns, at least anymore.
Those left behind will continue to fight to save their community from
sinking, regardless of how hard they have to bail. It's a pretty basic
impulse, according to Ed Hogan, a geography professor and associate vice
president for academic affairs at South Dakota State University.
"People want to protect what they value, and they value the community
they grew up in ... and that's important," Hogan said.
According to John Fraser Hart, a University of Minnesota geographer, once
a town gets to about 500sometimes even lessit has the critical
mass to sustain itself over time, even if those times are not particularly
prosperous. "There are enough loves and lives in the community that
they are not going to let it die."
Population is also relative. "A place of 250 people in South Dakota
is a lot bigger than 250 people in Ohio," Hart said. "In Ohio,
it's a pimple; in South Dakota it's the county seat."
Many people in declining rural counties hold out hope that things will
turn around. In fact, some rural areas saw a positive rebound in the 1990s
after having great difficulty in the 1980s "when a lot of places
lost people and were on the skids," Hart said. "In the 1990s,
there was a nice resurrection."
In Minnesota, 49 counties lost population in the 1980s; only 29 counties
lost population the following decade. In South Dakota, 52 of 66 counties
lost population in the 1980s; fewer than half lost population in the 1990s.
But for those still heading in the wrong direction, numerous sources said
efforts to redirect a county's economic course depended on local leadership.
"That local person really makes a difference. That's what it takes
to make it successful," said Hogan from SDSU. "Government has
to play a support role. They can't do the leadership."
Roger Olson, for one, has a plan for the small town of Chester, Mont.,
and it's roughly akin to turning lemons into lemonade.
Many longtime residents lament the fact that Chester "is turning
into a retirement community," Olson said, adding that the only new
business activity in town is a new nursing home. But he sees this as an
opportunityone of the few available to Chester these days. "My response is, 'Great, let's run with that,'" said Olson,
who owns an insurance agency and heads the local chamber of commerce.
"If that's what we're going to be, let's capitalize."
His reasoning is pretty simple. States like Florida and Arizona have prospered
by attracting RVs full of retirees looking for sun. Montana might not
have compatible weather year-round, but it has many other things to offer.
Olson said he was on the East Coast for several weeks in June, "and
when people found out I was from Montana, everyone sat me down and asked
me if it was as nice as everyone says." While in Pennsylvania, he
"rubbed elbows" with 250,000 people at a single stock-car racethat's
better than a quarter of Montana's entire population.
Olson likened Chester to the made-for-TV Mayberry. "We have exactly
what they want. ... There is no crime here. There is no anything"
that might deter people from coming, Olson said. "They want a place
to retire and not worry about locking up their pickup."
Chester also offers a low cost of living. Olson said his 3,000-square-foot
house"one of the nicest houses in town"would
fetch probably less than $100,000 in the local housing market. Folks
living off fixed investments can make their money go a long way
in the state. "In Montana, $50,000 is a huge paycheck." And it would also be a boon to local service businesses, he added.
Many local residents are skeptical, quick to mention that retirees
won't like the snow. Not a problem, in Olson's view. Retirees "are
coming here to spend money. ... [They say] 'I'm coming here, build
this house, buy that car,' and when it snows, let them go south."
But local folks are nervous about growth. "They don't want
to see population growth. I don't want to deal with hordes of people
either. But the reality is if we're going to survive that's exactly
what we need," Olson said. "But we're 10 steps away from
Brothers-in-arms, or brothers-with-arms?
Such efforts can be particularly daunting in lightly populated counties,
where the county seat (like Chester) might not even hit four digits. Short
of a dramatic shift in the farm economy, any real turnaround in rural
counties will require small towns to band together to seek out nonfarm
business growth, according to Jim Satterlee, former head of the Rural
Sociology Department and the State Data Center at South Dakota State University.
At the request of Gov. Bill Janklow, Satterlee recently finished a yearlong
tour of South Dakota. His task was to talk to communities "about
the impact of out-migration" highlighted by the 2000 census, and
how rural communities might start to rebuild themselves, he said. After
visiting many dozens of communities and giving some 80 to 100 presentations,
Satterlee has some deep impressions of the obstacles and opportunities
in front of rural communities.
"Where I find farm stability is when you get in larger urban areas,"
Satterlee said, because spouses have better opportunities to find jobs
themselves to supplement the household income, often bringing home health
and other important work benefits.
If a county or town is not among the geographically lucky to have, or
be located near, a regional center, Satterlee said, rural leaders have
to broaden their definition of what constitutes a community. He envisions
"counties becoming neighborhoods" in the community sense, because
in rural counties "no one city can pull it off."
Without a critical mass of peopleeven if they have to come from
40 miles awaya community has little chance of offering decent health
care and education or attracting new employers. But many towns are not
inclined to such cooperative efforts"It's slow in coming,"
Satterlee saiddespite their common downward spiral. "Some are
still fighting over who got the county seat back in the 1800s."
Even sports rivalries can be enough to keep communities from helping each
other. "They'll fight if [one community] got kicked out of the district
playoff 10 years ago [by a neighboring county]. ... Then there's the suspicion
of, 'What are they going to do to us now?'" Satterlee said.
"Leadership is probably the key. Someone to say we've got something
to salvage here," Satterlee said. Among young folks, "there
is a great deal of interest in salvaging something. ... It's the parent
generation that has that divisiveness."
Good leadership also starts with good local decisions, Satterlee said.
"It's like the guy who drives 50 miles to save a dollar on a two-by-four.
Then he goes to the coffee shop and complains that they lost the lumberyard