24 April 2015, Ben Winchester on ‘brain gain’.
by Dick Hagen, TBC Board member and writer for The Land Magazine
“We do have a diverse economy and we’re much better able to handle economic challenges than several years back. This out-migration of younger people from the Twin Cities and other areas since the 1970s has really helped rebuild our rural economy. Where would are small towns be today if that hadn’t happened? Our populations across rural Minnesota would be anywhere from 5% to 15% lower.”
Above comments by Ben Winchester, U of MN Extension Research Fellow, high-lighted his presentation at an April 23 event at Redwood Community Center involving Redwood and Renville county people. Speaking of the Brain Gain of the Newcomers to Rural America, Winchester shared interesting and encouraging information about what’s happening to rural Minnesota these days. And despite some of the ‘doom and gloom’ comments of Twin Cities’ media, he’s encouraged about what’s ahead. “Yes,” said Winchester, “the ‘brain drain’ after high school is real for much of rural Minnesota…and rural America. But so too the ‘brain gain’ is real.” His research shows that 68% of these ‘rural newcomers’ are college educated. Also 67% are generating household incomes over $50,000. And many are giving up on their ‘metro career’ simply recognizing that less pay but an easier life style has more value. “When these newcomers move out into rural Minnesota, they’re entrepreneurial. They start new businesses. Or they buy existing businesses. Or they may continue working for their company located in the Metro but now work out of their homes. Thanks to telecommunications and a much stronger broadband system than most folks realize, businesses can and do flourish in rural Minnesota…sometimes faster and easier than in the Metro areas,” said Winchester adding “….how we envision economic development is a completely different beast today than back in the 70’s.” Thanks to GPS technologies and competition, farm numbers have been in a decline for 50 years and that will continue; he noted even manufacturing has come and gone in many communities. Sure, agriculture is still big in the total scope of things but he said the primary drivers of Minnesota’s rural economy today are education and health services. “My point: it’s not your Grandpa’s rural anymore. We’re much more diverse and thankfully this diversity continues to happen,” said Winchester. “We’ve got some positives going on in many of our small towns even though there has been such a negative narrative. Admittedly the main streets of some rural communities aren’t sparkling like they used to. You lose a hardware story for example and it hurts the entire main street business complex. But just because things have changed doesn’t mean things have changed for the worse.
“My data shows people in the 20 to 39-age bracket want to live in small towns and rural country. So it’s not just people returning to their ‘home towns’ but also people with no previous experience now wanting to live in rural Minnesota.” According to Winchester, they’re moving out for a variety of reasons but these predominate:
• Wanting a quieter, simpler family life.
• Looking for safety and family security.
• Lower housing costs.
Winchester lived 10 years in Hancock, MN…a thriving community of 765 on Hwy 9 between Benson and Morris. In this small community Internet feeds through Federal Telephone are 20 mb down and 20 mb up. “Yet I had friends in the Metro who could not attain those speeds. Many of the Utilities and Coops across the state have greatly upgraded broadband access. It’s just not a major issue in outstate Minnesota like it used to be. Sure, still room for improvement but broadband access is no longer an issue in relocation of City dwellers neither to rural areas…nor for businesses relocating to rural Minnesota.” He makes the point that though there has been an overall population decline in southwest Minnesota, there also have been population gains in many areas. “And based on the cultural and economic attractions in the eyes of more and more people, this out-migration from the Metro area is likely to continue,” he predicts. Wanting to leave town after high school graduation is nothing new. “That’s been going on for a hundred years and will continue. But since the 1970s we’re seeing people age 30 to 50 moving into small towns. People want to have control over their life style plus the mental comfort of safety and security. And lower costs of housing seem to be a growing issue with more and more people.”\
Can you make a case for the ‘scenic beauty’ of a given area? Admittedly that has worked for northern Minnesota’s lake country since Day 1. In the Redwood County/Renville County area there is an enthusiastic crew know as the Tatanka Bluffs Corridor Committee with ambitions to work with leaders in the 26 communities in this 2-county area to make the scenic charm of the Minnesota River Valley not only a weekend destination area for metropolitan people but also uniquely inviting living area for ‘Newcomers’ flocking to Rural Minnesota. Vision of the Tatanka Bluffs organization is to build economic viability along the Minnesota River corridor throughout this 2-county area. Its mission is to create economic sustainability and protect the natural resources in the river corridor between Upper Sioux State Park near Granite Falls and Ford Ridgeley State Park. This 60-miles stretch of Scenic River is a boating, canoeing, and fishing bonanza. It features 6 camping sites with boat launches; some with corrals for overnight parking of horses; several area golf courses and some of the most spectacular environment in Minnesota. “People today want to be involved in just their specific interests which can be very narrow. But this also broadens the geography. Out here you have an active West Central Minnesota Snowmobile Association. It has a very narrow interest but a wide geography. It’s easy to see why snowmobiling here in the heart of the Minnesota River Valley has a special appeal to this special group of people.” And that also is a reason why local Lion’s Club, Kiwanis Groups, etc., have such difficulty in attracting these Newcomers. “Unless the Lion’s, etc., is doing something to align themselves with the interests of these newcomers, these newbie’s aren’t going to get involved. Sure it takes collaboration and cooperation. But it can and does work. Even in our counties with population loss we’re seeing a 3 to 10% increases in the number of non-profits which shows newcomers are creating new groups that reflect their interests. This is the rural revival, the vibrancy that shows under the radar.
“So even though it appears you have competing interests within the same community for these ‘new faces’ you also have complimentary things happening because often the existing social structure doesn’t even know this new structure exists because you don’t overlap with one another. Pipestone does periodic community suppers just for Newcomers. That’s a terrific welcome. “It’s a misnomer that you know everybody in your small town. You have new faces yet to meet. In any 5-year time period 43% of all Minnesotans move; the average American moves 11.7 times in a lifetime,” explained Winchester. And that partly is why the fairly rapid emergence of new regional hub cites….I call it new regional vanities such as Willmar, Marshall, and Worthington.” That regional concept is why he sees potential for the Tatanka Bluffs Corridor group. “People today don’t mind driving. If they know about it; and they like it; and it meets a specific interest of theirs it than potentially becomes a new destination point. My wife and I eat out often in neighboring towns and cities. I see that happening throughout rural Minnesota. It is a treat to eat out…especially the good food in many of our small towns. “However when talking about rebuilding a rural community be careful that you don’t boast about your town as ‘having it all’ because in the process you’re often putting down your neighboring town. Use that approach with a newcomer and not only have you downplayed your neighboring town; you’ve also downplayed your own town. Why would anyone want to live in your town if the neighboring town has nothing going on according to you?”
Summed up Winchester, “This repopulation of rural Minnesota is in its infancy. Sure, the Twin Cities will continue as the population hub and the great attraction to young folks. But as more identity gets established in rural Minnesota we’ll continue to see this brain gain going on in rural Minnesota too.”