As products of midwestern small towns, we both know the themes that have been apparent for decades. Young people leave. Schools merge. Grocery stores close. Residents drive to a bigger town to work, shop, and play. Farms get larger but the implement dealers close. The weekly paper gets thinner. In Minnesota, political sway shifts to the Twin Cities.
Yet a couple million Minnesotans live outside the Twin Cities in the region between Grand Portage and Luverne and between Caledonia and Hallock. They may be drawn by community, family, jobs, a desire for room to roam, or simply inertia. But like their urban counterparts, they are contending with big problems. The lake isn’t as clean as it used to be, students can’t get on the Internet, high-paying jobs have left town, doctors are scarce, and the elderly have a hard time staying in their homes as they age. Towns don’t have the money to pay for a bus system or keep the streets up or maintain a police force.
For more than three years, we have been reporting through Minnesota Public Radio News’ Ground Level project about these challenges and about the people emerging to take them on. Our work shined a light on these significant, even dire, challenges, but we also have found Minnesotans who, in the words of one observer of rural American towns, are "making an argument for their survival."
Our turf is Minnesota, but the story is American. Farmers, immigrants, artists, entrepreneurs and others are making the case that new approaches can work, especially small, local efforts that start with individuals trying to make their towns better. Enhanced by the evocative photos and video by Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber, this project is our portrait of a growing collection of people taking up the challenge to reinvent rural Minnesota for the 21st Century.
Dave Peters, editor, Ground Level
Jennifer Vogel, reporter, Ground Level
In Hewitt, a prairie town of 266 people almost exactly in the middle of Minnesota, moving forward looks a lot like stepping backward. Every fall for the past three years, the city has hosted Barter Fest, an outdoor swap festival. Locals and tourists come together to trade artwork for massages and musical instruments for vegetables while listening to out-of-town bands like Alien Brain and the Jugular Vein.
It’s unlikely anybody would have thought to pair the words "tourists" and "Hewitt" before Michael Dagen and his wife, Amber Fletschock, moved to town five years ago to establish an artistic outpost. Launching Barter Fest is one example of how the two thirty-somethings have pumped Hewitt full of the kind of entrepreneurial energy that could spell a new future for the little town.
Dagen, an audio engineer, and Fletschock, a visual artist, are among a small cadre of people in rural Minnesota working against long odds to save their communities. Driven by a variety of personal and professional desires—love of a river, perhaps, attachment to a piece of farm land, or the goal of connecting new immigrants with longtime residents—they aim to change the courses of the places where they live. All are trying to find the way forward for rural Minnesota, where jobs have disappeared thanks to globalized manufacturing and large-scale industrial agriculture, and where populations have been under economic pressure for decades.
“This is a whole civilization and it is in utter turmoil and being reinvented, politically, economically and culturally. The end is not in sight.”
Traditional markers of identity—the grocery store, the post office, even the local police department—are dropping away. But in some places, this disintegration has created openings for people who want to do things differently. When the factory closes or the school shuts its doors because there aren’t enough kids to fill it, a town may need to find a savior. Sometimes locals are shocked to discover such a person even exists.
"Now, when we’ve been here for a while," said Dagen, "I understand more why they were open to us coming in with new ideas. In a lot of ways, there wasn’t much to lose, you know?"
Outstate Minnesota is like a lot of rural areas across the Midwest and the country trying to keep a foothold in a more technological, wide-open world. The economic slowdown that started with the 2007 recession added urgency, lowering some property values, making investment capital harder to come by, and threatening to hasten small-town decline. Government budget cutting has placed rural areas in the crosshairs, too. In Minnesota, programs that benefit outstate communities, such as Local Government Aid to cities, Medical Education and Research Costs, which pays for rural doctor training, and the Statewide Health Improvement Program, were targeted.
For many, both in Minnesota and the rest of the nation, these circumstances have become a call to action.
"(Most) of the Midwest has been sliding downhill for 30 or 40 years," said Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who studies the Midwest’s economies and published a book on the topic called Caught in the Middle. "We’ve always been kidding ourselves that it’s temporary, that we will come back, and we always have. We always do. But each time we go down a little bit lower than before and the next dip is a little further down. People are waking up and saying, ‘This time is different.’"
"This is a whole civilization, this upper Midwest, and it is in utter turmoil and being reinvented, politically, economically and culturally," said Longworth. "The end is not in sight."
The Obama administration in 2011 established an official White House Rural Council, with the aim of maximizing investment in rural areas and targeting job creation, telecommunications, renewable energy, outdoor recreation, and access to education, health care, and housing.
But it’s an uphill fight.
First, never has such a small portion of the American public lived in rural areas. Maps based on the most recent census show that, especially in the middle of the country, many small towns are emptying, while urban areas are growing. Only one in six Americans lives in a rural community. The ratio in Minnesota is slightly higher, around one in four. But even that represents a dramatic decline. In 1950, 56 percent of Minnesotans were considered rural.
For decades, outstate Minnesota has been bleeding young people who move to urban areas for better jobs and cultural opportunities and leave behind a population that’s older, poorer, less college educated, and more politically conservative than the state as a whole.
In a sense, we have two Minnesotas. The division appeared starkly last November when voters defeated an amendment that would have changed the state constitution to favor heterosexual marriage. Rural voters supported the proposal overwhelmingly, while urban voters opposed it with the same fervor. Handgun ownership seems likewise to reflect a divide. People in rural parts of northern and northeastern Minnesota are much more likely to have gun permits, per capita, than people in the Twin Cities.
As an increasing number of Minnesota counties have been labeled metropolitan areas, the state’s rural population declined substantially as a portion of the total, and even in absolute numbers fell slightly between 1950 and 2010.
In December, just after an election where rural people largely voted against President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack declared that rural America "is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country." He added that it’s time for an "adult conversation with folks in rural America." The comments rankled many, but others saw truth in what the former Iowa governor said.
Rural is no longer synonymous with agriculture. Farming is increasingly dominated by multinational corporations, and this development has left a void on Main Street. "Sometimes you get the feeling there is no there there, no common interest that pulls people together," said Arne Kildegaard, director of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris. "Agriculture feels like it’s spun off in its own orbit now. They do their banking and agriculture financing things in town. But their economic interest is no longer closely tied to the town except that they want to keep tax rates low. That is their degree of civic engagement."
Rural Minnesota is distinct from urban Minnesota by many measures. The median age and the percentage of households with senior citizens is greater, making questions about aging more urgent in rural areas.
Rural Minnesota as a whole is less ethnically diverse, but that is not true in some areas.
Rural Minnesotans tend to have lower incomes, and young people are less likely to have college degrees, which has implications for the workforce.
source: Minnesota Demographic Center
Earlier this year, a report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minnesota, suggested that rural Minnesota has lost its collective voice. Traditional industries like farming, timber, mining, and manufacturing don’t employ as many people as they once did, and statewide organizations that once paid attention to rural issues are "following the flow of money and members to the Twin Cities and regional centers—placing much more emphasis on non-rural agendas," the report said.
To some who live in cities, people to whom "rural" may be an abstraction or a dusty representation of a bygone era, the withering of rural communities has taken on an air of inevitability or even progress. Let the small towns die, some argue, in favor of bigger cities where density makes living more efficient, both environmentally and financially.
From afar, rural Minnesota may look like a quilt of farm fields interrupted by the occasional grain silo or abandoned movie theater. But, in fact, there are vibrant battles being waged here by people who understand that vast open spaces and even a lack of resources and infrastructure afford the freedom and the necessity to invent. These people, the farmer trying to improve water quality or the artist finding a new use for an old creamery, may be employing different strategies, but they are pulling at threads of the same fabric.
They are all trying to save their piece of rural America.
Verna Toenyan, who was raised in Eagle Bend in central Minnesota, organizes and advocates for seniors in Todd County, where nearly one in five residents are 65 or older. Though she’s in her sixties herself, she often begins her days at 5 a.m. and works until well after dark, occasionally pulling her car over for a nap on the shoulder of a road. She knits people and dollars together in a myriad of creative combinations.
She teaches the elderly to use e-mail and arranges networks that keep them in their houses and out of nursing homes. She organizes food programs. "You could never put a price tag on anything that would make an 80- or 90-year-old woman get up, put on the best outfit that she’s got and lipstick and earrings, to meet somebody bringing her a hot meal," said Toenyan. "There’s no price tag."
In the next decade, Minnesota is expected to have more people over 65 than school-aged children, a demographic shift that disproportionately affects rural areas, which are already older than the norm.
The trend extends nationwide. Nearly half of all rural counties experienced more deaths than births between 2011 and 2012. That compares to just 17 percent of urban counties.
And so, the school closes. And then the grocery store. And then the bank. "I have seen it, a dwindling at a very gradual rate, all my life," said Toenyan. "It’s just like sliding downhill very slowly."
A shift toward older Minnesotans—where there are more people drawing public benefits and fewer working to pay for them—will dramatically alter many aspects of life, primary among them the delivery of health care. Simply spending more isn’t an option, given tight federal, state, and local budgets. So, people look for new ways of doing things, such as using broadband for long-distance diagnoses and record keeping or providing in-home services so the elderly can "age in place."
"People got disconnected and got afraid of each other."
The solution usually depends on the particular problem. And the tools of success depend on a community’s resources, whether an abundance of volunteers, high-speed Internet, or a local, innovative hospital.
In Toenyan’s case, she taps public, private, and foundational resources to make sure seniors in Todd County don’t go hungry. Recently, she established a nonprofit bakery in Eagle Bend to help raise money for a senior meals program. Several years ago, she helped start a new kind of bundled Meals on Wheels service that enlists volunteers to deliver frozen dinners to elderly people living along some of the longest gravel roads in the county.
"It’s just that I love the people and want everyone to have a bright future and options and opportunities, regardless of age, from a tiny baby on up," she said.
For others in rural Minnesota, reimagining the places where they live means encouraging the arts or pushing locals to open new businesses. It may mean haranguing elected officials to engage in smarter planning, developing ecological farming practices, building incubator kitchens to anchor local food revivals, stringing fiber-optic cable up steep rock faces to serve remote homes, or trying to get Latinos and whites working together.
Some people start community gardens where locals of different ethnicities can interact or put on plays that explore the history of a town to bolster civic pride. Still others start festivals, like in Hewitt, to bring people to town in the first place.
"We’re secretly hoping we can get more artists and craftspeople to move to this area," said Dagen, the audio engineer in Hewitt. "It’s a cheap and beautiful place to live." The city, with just a handful of businesses, including a café, an auto service station, and Jimmy’s Wurst Saloon & Grill, has unexpectedly found itself on the cutting edge of frontier chic.
Hewitt isn’t about to become a metropolis—in its heyday in the 1920s it never topped 400 people—but it also seems less likely now to be wiped from the map. A few years ago, Dagen won a $156,000 Minnesota Historic and Cultural Grant to fix the windows and roof on the city’s enormous colonial revival-style history museum, formerly the public school. And he’s working with a student at the University of Minnesota Morris to develop a renewable heating system for the building. He’s been collecting books for a lending library too, which is housed in the museum.
"People didn’t really appreciate what was there," Dagen said. "Now that you see it repaired . . . people are proud of it."
Along with Fletschock, Dagen also restored Hewitt’s once-decaying Rebekah Hall to serve as the couple’s recording and art studio, which brings in musicians from other parts of the region. The two fondly call their outpost "Abandoned Scout Camp."
With an eye toward collaboration, Dagen has drawn other locals into the cause, hoping to bolster a sense of community reminiscent of a bygone era. "That’s how they ran, these small communities," he said. "Everybody knew everybody. They knew how to get what they needed. Over the last 100 years, that has slowly eroded. People got disconnected and got afraid of each other."
Now Dagen, recently hired as Hewitt's part-time clerk and treasurer, is part of an effort to build a rustic park on more than 100 acres of wooded private land on Mt. Nebo north of town, owned by a longtime resident. The plan is to connect the park to the city by trail and also, at some point, connect it to nearby Wadena. People could camp at the park, Dagen said, and it could become the new home of Barter Fest.
It also could be one more reason for people to come to Hewitt. "We think it will be a draw throughout the region and beyond," he said. "There aren’t a lot of places for people to camp and stay around here."
By some measures, "keeping it rural" is a difficult and expensive proposition.
Just defining what is rural invites disagreement. Many argue that the character of a place—whether it’s exurban, part of vacationland, or in remote farm country—is as important as population numbers when it comes to making the designation.
Not all rural communities are alike nor have all been subject to the same declines in population. In Minnesota, the loss has been concentrated in farming areas in the southern and western parts of the state, such as Big Stone and Yellow Medicine counties along the Minnesota River, and in the far north and northwest, such as Kittson and Koochiching counties. Conversely, some central areas with lakes and cabins, where people go to retire, have gained population in recent years.
Other outstate areas with large immigrant populations also have beat the trend and grown or at least shrunk less than they might have. Cities like Pelican Rapids, St. James, and Madelia are now one-quarter or more Latino.
Where exactly to place the line between rural and urban may seem inconsequential, but it’s not. When politicians start talking about funding cuts to balance state and federal budgets, each side wants to have the political muscle to control the debate.
With 3,500 people, Traverse County on Minnesota’s border with the Dakotas fits anybody’s definition of rural. And with just six people per square mile, it fits many people’s definition of frontier. The county has only one hospital, in the county seat of Wheaton where nearly half the county population resides. The city is anchored by a large, stone courthouse and the sheriff’s department and other county services, the employees of which support the businesses on Broadway.
"Rural life has both great advantages and great disadvantages, and it is not the job of hardworking taxpayers who chose to live elsewhere to level out the differences."
The county doesn’t see enough criminal or civil cases to warrant a sitting judge, so it shares a judge with neighboring counties and holds many hearings via interactive television. It shares department heads for various health and social services with other counties, too. It applies for grants jointly and participates in buying groups for supplies.
And yet, there are those in this age of austerity who say these efforts aren’t enough and Traverse County itself should be folded into another county, its courthouse packed in mothballs.
Janet Raguse, county coordinator until late last year, thinks doing away with local government offices is a bad idea. "We would lose service," she said. "Because we are so remote, I don't see how the priority of our citizens would be kept in mind. I can’t see how that would be a plus for Traverse County."
And there is the conundrum.
In a time of protracted national budget difficulties, is it more important to keep services alive for a small, remote community or to spend public dollars where they’ll have the most impact?
Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein somewhat famously touted the wealth-generating power of cities two years ago in a column about the book The Triumph of the City. He wrote that "cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative. To put it plainly, they make us richer." But, he added, ". . . it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living."
Some rural advocates took umbrage at the notion of a rural subsidy, noting that when federal spending on the military, criminal justice, and higher education are factored in, spending on metro areas per capita is slightly higher than on rural areas. In fact, per capita federal spending has increased in rural and urban parts of the nation in recent years, but it has increased less in rural areas—32 percent compared to 40 percent between 2006 and 2010.
Because rural people generally are poorer and older than those in cities, they draw substantially more in the significant category of transfer payments, including medical benefits, retirement and disability payments, unemployment insurance, and veterans’ benefits. These payments added up in 2011 to $8,236 per person in rural areas and $7,022 in metro areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service
When it comes to state money, there is a similar shift of tax dollars from urban to rural communities. Minnesota aids and credits, or money paid out of the state coffers, totaled almost $2,600 per capita in non-metro areas in 2009 compared to just over $2,400 in metro areas, according to a 2012 report from the Minnesota House Research Department. Yet, when it comes to major state taxes, or money paid in, non-metro areas contributed around $2,000 per capita and metro areas $3,000. So in many ways, cities here support rural areas. Read the report here (PDF).
While outstate communities tend to draw fewer private investment and foundation dollars, it’s also true that a host of programs exist to keep rural America afloat. Even setting aside the billions that go toward farm subsidies each year, the federal government has dedicated approximately $7 billion to expanding broadband Internet access to underserved areas. It also subsidizes more than 1,300 remote hospitals by paying them 1 percent above their Medicare costs and spends approximately $200 million each year on the Essential Air Service program, which helps keep some rural airports, including several in Minnesota, flying.
Some of these programs have been targeted for cuts in recent budget tussles. The rural hospital subsidy was on the block during budget negotiations last year. And Essential Air recently drew scrutiny as well. "Rural life has both great advantages and great disadvantages, and it is not the job of hardworking taxpayers who chose to live elsewhere to level out the differences," Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said last June on the subject of rural airport support. (Both programs have been preserved for now.)
The state’s Local Government Aid program, which sends dollars to most Minnesota cities, has been trimmed in recent years, and some small communities responded by putting off road repairs, disbanding police departments, eliminating services, and reducing staff. Lawmakers in 2013 restored some of the money but put more emphasis on the Twin Cities going forward.
Often, when these statewide programs are cut, "Rural Minnesota ends up getting disproportionately hurt," said Jack Geller, a former professor and department head at the University of Minnesota Crookston, who studies rural issues. "That is really very common in almost everything. It’s not like our legislators at any level sit around and conspire, ‘How can we screw rural Minnesota?’ But we have become quite an urbanized state, much more urbanized than we consciously think."
For example, he said, there are far more highway miles in rural Minnesota, yet state funding for road repair doesn’t reflect that, mainly because roads get more use in denser areas. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, there are 10,763 miles of state-maintained roads beyond the metro compared to 1,095 miles in the eight-county metro area. Yet, in 2013, the state will spend $162 million in "trunk highway" funds outstate and $122 million in the metro.
"Certainly there is less government money available for various programs," said Patrick Carr, a Rutgers University sociologist who researches rural economic issues and lived for a stretch in Iowa in order to co-write the book Hollowing Out the Middle. "You can see that at the state and federal levels. State-sponsored programs to help rural America have dried up in many ways." He thinks there could be an upside, that if rural cities are less reliant on public dollars they may become more inventive out of necessity. "It forces places to think creatively to address their problem and to fund it," Carr said.
One person who takes that to heart is Shawn Gillen, who served as city administrator in Grand Rapids, in northern Minnesota, for six years before leaving in April for a job in Georgia. The former Iowa Hawkeye offensive lineman spent his time there rethinking the way local government works and lessening his city’s reliance on state aid along the way.
Beyond sharing services with the county and neighboring cities, he invested in paperless management systems, new energy technologies, cross-training of city employees, money-saving health insurance programs, and plow trucks that also spread salt and haul snow. "We are just solving our own problem here," Gillen said before his departure. "We would like to be a model city for how to do things. But our goal is to fix our problem."
The imperative to do things differently in rural areas increases with each passing year.
"There’s one big challenge that small towns face today," said Charles Marohn, a Brainerd-area engineer, planner, and writer. "And that is, why do they exist? For the most part our small towns in this country exist because they once existed. It is inertia that is keeping them around. They always had a reason to be there . . . whether it was mining, logging, agriculture, there was some core economic reason why they existed. Today that’s largely gone and small towns are, for the most part, a lifestyle choice of the people who want to live there."
That can make it hard to get urban people to care about the fate of small towns. "It becomes really, really difficult when you look at the subsidy payments that go back and forth, largely from urban areas to rural areas, to support that lifestyle," he said.
A cultural fault line has emerged. "We sit in the cities and everybody we know goes to the symphony and votes Democratic," said Chicago author Richard Longworth, who was born in Boone, Iowa. "We look down on the rural areas. And people in the rural areas think these (urban) wise guys are telling us what to do and they are corrupt. Rural areas have fewer people and fewer votes." So when these debates come up, a small city "doesn’t have as big a voice as it used to."
"At a time when cities are in terrific competition, when we are wondering in Chicago how we are going to pay for major infrastructure repairs, how we are going to fix O’Hare, fix the schools and do all the things we need to do to remain a big important global city without pricing the middle class out of the city, we are not very inclined to share with the small towns downstate," Longworth said.
“They’ve got to make an argument for their survival. It’s like anything else, if you lose your job, you have to go and get a new one.”
In response, rural advocates have turned up the rhetoric, emphasizing the potential of rural America and trumpeting the importance of keeping small communities vital. They note the interlocked nature of urban and rural economies, especially when it comes to food, energy, and tourism.
"One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America," Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, a native of Pittsburgh, said in response to Klein’s Washington Post paean to cities.
It’s a sentiment Marohn, president of the nonprofit Strong Towns, echoes. "We need those economies to be vital and to sustain themselves," he said. "I do think there is a part of American culture, a part of who we are that is captured in the small town culture. I would like to think that the best of us happens at those small town levels."
The drive to modernize the image of rural America has led to some desperate-sounding campaigns. In the mid-2000s, Vilsack, then governor of Iowa, launched an effort to woo alumni from the state’s colleges and universities who had moved away. According to Carr’s Hollowing Out the Middle, the state sent more than 200,000 letters to graduates asking them to return and followed up with invitations to cocktail parties. Vilsack promised short work commutes and a culture that offered more than "hogs, acres of corn, and old people." Another program, called Michigan Cool Cities, sought to revitalize that state’s cities, big and small, by emphasizing arts and creating amenities like parks and jazz cafes. That effort, too, fell short.
Minnesota has mainly focused its rural revitalization efforts on economic development schemes like the now defunct Star City program and JOBZ, which provides tax exemptions to companies that relocate or expand outstate. JOBZ drew significant criticism from those who said it had little impact and gave breaks to businesses likely to expand anyway. Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to replace it with a fund that will distribute grants only after companies have met job goals.
Certainly, there are arguments to be made for bolstering small communities, even beyond the simple fact that people live there. "Not to do so is to say there is only one way we should all live, one type of place and I don’t think that’s healthy," Carr said. "A healthy rural America is good for the country."
The upshot, in Longworth’s view, is that small communities need to be more independent and innovative in order to secure new futures for themselves. "They’ve got to make an argument for their survival," he said. "They grew up as mining towns or railway centers. It’s like anything else, if you lose your job, you have to go and get a new one."
To see how finding a new economic driver might happen, look beyond the government initiatives. In Montevideo, a city of a little more than 5,000 people in western Minnesota, Patrick Moore is busy connecting his city and region to the future.
Located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Chippewa Rivers, Montevideo had been slowly losing population for decades. It’s one of many towns built along railroad tracks that suffered as farms became larger and more mechanized and as television and cars presented options other than the theater and the grocery store downtown. "It was this series of economic driving forces, and cultural ones, that led to the basic idea that cities are better places to live and small towns are a thing of the past," said Moore.
“To chase the big score, that is dangerous. It’s not the way to go anymore.”
But lately, there is a new vibrancy here—a bustling main street, an influx of Latino residents starting businesses, and a focus on art and conversation that drew a young native to return to make a feature film.
Most of these changes are linked in some way to Moore, who was raised in the Twin Cities and came to Montevideo armed with a love of the river and a belief in the transformational power of collaboration. Republican or Democrat, farmer or environmentalist, white or Latino, in Moore’s eyes you never know what people might agree on until they start talking. Exploiting these points of agreement is how you make things happen.
Or as Moore puts it, "You build the road by walking."
Moore’s road here started with the purchase of an old downtown building, which he renovated and in 1998 turned into the Java River Café, a community hub designed to "stimulate the rebirth of a new economy based on locally produced quality foods and creative cultural expression." It’s no accident the word "river" is in the name. Moore, who until recently ran an environmental group called Clean Up the River Environment, wants to reorient Montevideo toward the Minnesota, to use the river as a unifying story and rallying feature.
To keep and draw young people, he said, a city needs recreational opportunities, an imagination about itself, and "a cultural scene where it’s exciting, where there’s music and there is interaction."
"You’ve got to have a lot of tricks up your sleeve to survive," Moore said.
His efforts don’t stop at the city borders, but include much of the Upper Minnesota River Valley. Like people elsewhere, he’s found that developing a broader network can be a powerful thing when it comes to voice and impact.
This kind of regional thinking is one way to combat smallness without losing "authenticity," said Vicki Markussen, executive director of the business and recreational collaborative 7 Rivers Alliance. The group ties together people in southeastern Minnesota, western Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa and ignores state boundaries in favor of what they have in common—namely, the river valleys of the Driftless Area. "By pooling together you can make a bigger ripple," Markussen said.
When Montevideo’s neighbor, Granite Falls, planned to knock down an historic riverfront building called the K.K. Berge, Moore helped convince leaders to spend the tear-down money on rehabbing it instead. Now it houses the Granite Falls area chamber of commerce and an art gallery. Last year it was a starting point for the Meander, an ever-expanding fall arts crawl that stretches along the Minnesota River all the way to Ortonville. He also helped foster two historical plays about the city and area, one of them delivered in May on the banks of the river and viewed by canoe.
It can be difficult to quantify the larger effects of these local efforts because it’s hard to know what would have happened without them. But it’s easy to spot the street-level impacts, whether the formerly vacant building that now houses a café or store, the industrial lot newly planted with tomatoes and peppers for the Twin Cities market, or the high-speed Internet connection that allows the local potter to sell in France. Sometimes progress is felt rather than measured. Ann Thompson, a resident of nearby Milan, described the change this way: When she grew up several decades ago, young people who stayed in town were considered failures, and that is no longer so.
This rural part of western Minnesota has done better than many in the state in recent years when it comes to grassroots job growth, whether measured in proprietor income or self employment. In addition, the latest census showed a small uptick in Montevideo’s population since 2000, of 37 people. "Our goals are to fill up Main Street and to keep young people," said Moore. "It’s happening."
So, while there have been a fair number of sweeping plans floated to save rural America—such as former North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan’s repeated attempts to pass the New Homestead Act, which would have provided financial incentives for rural living—small, tailored efforts like the one in Montevideo seem to hold the most promise.
They account for the fact that what works in the Arrowhead won’t necessarily work in Todd County. They are rooted in local assets and coupled with the imagination to know what to do with them. "What do we know? What are we good at? What have we done?" Longworth suggests communities ask themselves. "We’ve always been in agriculture. How can we fit into this new bio thing? If we’ve had a certain industry here, a certain thing we know how to make, maybe we can go into that."
In the past, small cities have typically tried to draw in a big manufacturer or processor to employ a couple of hundred people and keep the economy going. But that approach hasn’t worked as well since the recession. Cities from Long Prairie to Esko to Claremont are stuck with empty, or nearly empty, industrial parks and housing developments conceived of during the boom times.
It’s a situation that strikes Charles Marohn as absurd and serves as a cautionary tale. He is trying to modernize the way communities think about development and infrastructure, arguing that building water plants and sewer systems and streets before the buildings and houses are there to use them is inviting untenable long-term costs.
Some of his ideas are viewed as heretical, such as the suggestion that cities let targeted neighborhoods atrophy and some roads go back to gravel. "Small towns need to develop high service areas, where people should have high expectations of service," he said. "And then they need to quite frankly have low service areas, where people are not going to pay much, but they also should not expect that much."
Having grown up on a central Minnesota farm, Marohn has credibility when he talks about a more viable future for outstate communities, even if some aren’t prepared to heed his advice. "We’ve just built more than we can maintain," he said, preaching density over suburban-style sprawl. "A lot of these areas will be used for salvage. Send a machine out and grind up the asphalt."
When it comes to jobs, many communities now are taking a more grassroots approach and trying to encourage local start-ups. Perfectly encapsulating the times, developer Tom Elbert has converted the former Crestliner boat manufacturing plant in Little Falls into a small business incubator. He offers cheap rent and shared amenities and equipment to young manufacturing and fabricating businesses.
A person looking to start a company in Red Wing or Lac qui Parle County might be offered help with a business plan, mentoring, and even in some cases, a microloan. As Pam Lehmann, Lac qui Parle economic development authority director, put it, "If you help 100 small guys get started, you’ve created 100 jobs. If one or two fail, that’s not the impact of one big employer failing and losing all the jobs."
Carr, the Rutgers sociologist, suggests this strategy: "Start working with what you have and go from there. To chase the big score, that is dangerous. It’s not the way to go anymore. Communities need to be flexible and be able to adapt to different conditions. Adaptability is a key thing."
"I think it’s the smaller efforts that work," he said.
Small communities tend to have fewer resources and fewer formal systems in place to deal with issues and problems. While that in itself can be a problem—it’s unlikely a small city would forego state aid in favor of an art crawl, for example —the blank slate nature of rural life does make it simpler to test new ideas.
Some of the freshest approaches come from passionate, driven individuals outside official circles. "I see it as an adaption that’s cropping up in interesting and organic ways," said Arne Kildegaard. "Economic development is pretty sterile at the higher levels. People are doing it for themselves."
Still, those passionate individuals often have a hard time coaxing others into the effort. The past can get in the way.
"Honestly, it can be a little bit of an impediment for some of these regions because there can be such a negative underlying foundation behind this," said Kelly Asche, who lives in Hancock in western Minnesota and is community program specialist for the U of M’s Center for Small Towns. "You have to get them over that hump of talking about how it used to be."
He encourages people to name what’s good about their towns, whether a lake, an historic courthouse, or a healthy school. "We are attempting to broaden the narrative of the rural area."
That’s what can happen when people like Moore or Dagen or Toenyan step up, people who have the ability to not only spot a kernel of possibility but to incite others to see it also. They have the vision and perseverance to move others to change.
"They are the kind of people that you look at them and you are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you are doing this,’" said Marohn of community instigators. "Sometimes you get embarrassed because they will stand up at the meeting and pound their fist. Or sometimes they are just the busybody in the room. But after a while, especially in a small town, they tend to grow on you because they are the people who are passionate."
At the hands of one of these people, locals might find themselves cheerfully committing time to pick up bags of litter or spending money to open a restaurant. Before long, they are convinced there is a future out there.
“What brings us together is this history of self-sufficiency around food.”
The evidence stretches from the Arrowhead to the Iowa border.
Muriel Krusemark moved back to her hometown of Hoffman, in western Minnesota, seven years ago after retiring from a Twin Cities grocery store management job. But she wasn’t retired for long. Now, as the tiny city’s economic development coordinator, she’s made it her mission to fill every empty building on Main Avenue. So far, she’s ushered in a marketplace, an appliance store, a dog grooming outfit, and other businesses.
She also helped raise $6,200 to put a new logo on the water tower. Hardly anybody in town skates by without pitching in, whether by manning the food shelf or opening a store. "It takes lots of people to get things done," Krusemark said. "There’s lots you can do without money."
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, a Guatemala native who lives in Northfield, trains local Latino immigrants to run their own farming businesses. But, as director of a sustainable food and agriculture program at the Main Street Project, his goal is bigger than that. By teaching immigrants to grow organic vegetables and raise free-range chickens, he aims to reduce rural poverty and broaden the availability of local foods.
Along the way, these newly trained Latino entrepreneurs can boost the communities where they live. "If we can’t figure something out, at least let’s not close ourselves to the possibility that someone else may," said Haslett-Marroquin. "And that ‘someone else’ is most likely going to be someone who doesn’t look like us, because if they look like us and they live where we live, they are probably going to think in a very similar way to us."
Bruce Tiffany, a corn and soybean farmer outside Redwood Falls, is working on a way for commodities farming to live alongside improved water quality. He uses a variety of innovative filtering and water catching techniques in his fields and speaks about his efforts publicly, whether to other farmers or environmentalists, enlivening the debate around responsible farming. If you won’t swim in a pool of the runoff from your property, he said, "You can do better."
U of M Morris Spanish instructor Windy Roberts, who is originally from Venezuela, is the glue that holds together Morris’s white and Latino immigrant communities. In trying to unlock the city’s potential, she has helped launch a bilingual social club, a multicultural reading club, and a Latina support group. She has enlisted an army of U of M students and others in these efforts.
She encourages friendships between people with different backgrounds. "In the past, there were these kinds of immigrants who came to work and then they left," Roberts said. "Now we have these more long term (immigrants) and they are with families and kids and they are becoming part of the school system. We feel this needs to be done to make the rest of the community aware of this good thing that is happening."
Lisa Weiskopf and Simone Senogles dreamed up the new commercial incubator kitchen inside Harmony Co-op in Bemidji. The facility provides everything local food entrepreneurs need to turn out products for restaurants and grocery stores. But Weiskopf, the co-op’s produce manager, and Senogles, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, also are working with others to improve what local people (including Native Americans) eat and to bolster the local food economy.
"This is a rich region in terms of culture and self-sufficiency," said Senogles. "There are a lot of natives, a lot of white folks, and sometimes there is a lot of tension between the groups, so racism pulls us apart. But what brings us together is this history of self-sufficiency around food, whether that be gathering, hunting, fishing or planting."
Carr speaks to groups across the country, and in his travels he’s seen a pattern emerge in towns where things are happening. "The places that have been successful seem to have the following: a core group of people who are absolutely committed," he said. "This is a group of people who have had a bunch of small and medium-sized successes. They have become good at doing things. This builds its own civic confidence." In other words, starting a café can lead to saving a doomed historical building on the river.
North of Montevideo, Thompson moved back to her hometown of Milan, population 369, nearly a decade ago after living overseas for 18 years. She came home to spend time with her elderly parents. "I didn’t want to live with the regrets of not doing that," she said.
She proceeded to open an arts and gift shop on Milan’s main drag called Billy Maple Tree’s, named after her father, in a building that’s been in her family for generations. Under the same roof, her dad runs an elaborate history museum of his own making. "I wanted to start a business," she said. "I thought it would be easy to do here."
Besides running the store, Thompson teaches English-as-a-second-language classes to Milan’s growing Micronesian population. She and others have turned the old public school into a multiuse arts building, an auxiliary to the Milan Village Arts School, with studio and class space. Now, she’s helping to make the school’s kitchen the center of an agricultural cooperative, complete with food classes and chickens.
"In a small town, your community is what you make it," Thompson said. "All the businesses in town, the café, the grocery store, the gas station, they all owe something (to the arts). They all feed off the arts community here."
"People are coming back to this area who grew up here or are new people," she said. "With modern technology you don’t have to live in the metro areas. They see opportunities here, affordable studio space and affordable accommodations. One local farmer-slash-artist told me, if you are a starving artist in a metro area, you have to spend 90 percent of you time trying to live, whereas here the percentage of time it takes to earn a living is greatly reduced. That’s a very attractive thing for people."
"I think Milan has done a pretty good job of adapting to change," Thompson said. "It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary."
Scratch very deeply and it becomes clear that generating economic development—jobs—lies beneath almost all the conversations about rural America. And five fields in particular tend to excite people: local food, health care, arts, renewable energy, and technology.
In 2009, the city of Long Prairie, in central Minnesota, built a state-of-the-art business incubator on its two-year-old industrial park at the edge of town. At the time it was what a lot of cities were doing. And as in a lot of cities, the park has been mostly empty ever since. "There is the old saying, ‘Build it and they will come,’" said Lyle Danielson, director of the Long Prairie Economic Development Authority. "That’s not necessarily true. But if nothing is built there is no reason to come."
Four years later, Danielson is working with Jaime Villalaz, a Latino business specialist and tax preparer based in St. Cloud, on a new use for part of the industrial park. While the plots were designed with industry in mind, this summer several acres of land are being used to grow tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers instead.
Diving into local sustainable foods is an idea that comes up frequently when people talk about reviving rural economies. It has cachet, is connected to at least an urban view of the future, and plays off some of the particular strengths of rural areas— namely, open space, abundant water, and lots of people who know how to farm.
Whatever a city does to survive, said Marohn, the focus should grow from its inherent strengths. "In some ways, you have 60 years of small towns largely looking outside of their communities for their future," he said. "How can we subsidize the business to move here? How can we get a grant or loan that will help us make some advancement that will make us marginally better?"
A solution that "comes from inside," he said, "might not be as big or as grand or as splashy. It might not be as sexy or something you can put in magazines around the world, but it will be theirs. It will be authentic. It will be real. That train of thought gives me a lot of hope because it is one that actually will be here tomorrow."
In Long Prairie, the farming is done by a small, new agricultural cooperative called Agua Gorda, named for the city in Mexico from which its members hail. The co-op, which sold produce to a Twin Cities restaurant last summer, began with the help of Danielson and Villalaz in Long Prairie’s community garden. The garden was designed as a low-stakes setting where the city’s whites and Latinos could interact. Agua Gorda may become an economic success as well.
The notion that Long Prairie, a meatpacking city, could be a player in local foods is appealing. Danielson doesn’t expect the farming effort to flood the city with tax dollars, at least not yet. But it’s a start. "It’s good for the community," he said, noting that the cooperative will pay rent.
Health care is another obvious building block for rural economies. Given aging populations and a lack of rural doctors, providers are devising new ways to deliver services through technology and the use of so-called "mid-level" practitioners like dental therapists, who have more training than hygienists but less than full-fledged dentists.
Lakewood Health System in Staples, for example, has adopted a forward-looking approach known as the "medical home," which involves treating patient needs as a team. The goal is to improve care while lowering costs. In a rural health care landscape dominated by increasing hospital consolidation, Lakewood has remained independent and has grown.
Renewable energy is a favorite target when rural areas are feeling around for something new. Cities like Luverne and Benson have bet on biofuels, and Chandler, in southwestern Minnesota, is home to a large wind farm.
Carr expects renewable energy to remain a small market, at least in the near term. He thinks the "explosion of the fossil fuel and fracking industry" has changed the energy landscape, lowering natural gas prices and putting green energy at a disadvantage. It’s hasty, he said, to "chase the new, good looking thing on the block."
The University of Minnesota Morris campus has invested in wind and biofuels, and Kildegaard points out that excess energy can be hard to sell, making new energy an iffy bet for the small operator. Cheap natural gas doesn’t help. "We have a biomass gasifier on campus," he said. "It’s the reason my office has heat this morning. It would be cheaper to use natural gas now. Five years from now that might flip."
“Broadband is not going to save them. But it’s absolutely necessary.”
Longworth is bullish. "There is a lot going on with green energy," he said. "It’s about 10 or 15 percent of total energy. That is not miniscule. And it’s growing." The industry will accelerate even more, he thinks, once we figure out how better to transmit power from rural areas where it’s produced to urban areas where it’s most needed. "How do you get the stuff from the Dakotas to Chicago? It is going to take a terrific amount of investment to do it."
According to a November 2012 study published in the journal Energy Economics, for each megawatt of installed wind capacity, a county gains half a job and just over $11,000 in total personal income. Minnesota has an estimated installed wind capacity of 2,987 megawatts. By the formula in the study, that equals roughly 1,493 jobs statewide and $33 million in personal income.
While that’s just a tiny portion of the state’s overall economic picture, it might be okay if these industries don’t spawn the next Hormel Foods or Mayo Clinic. Ideally, a wind or solar farm or an organic milk operation would serve as a vital part of a rural community’s larger, more varied economic portfolio.
Of all the bright new economic ideas out there, a focus on technology has captured the most attention and drawn significant effort. In Cook County, in the Arrowhead, Joe Buttweiler is busy running fiber-optic cable along the bottoms of lakes and up small mountains to bring high-speed Internet access to local residents, no matter how remote.
Buttweiler, director of member services and broadband projects for Lutsen-based Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, is in charge of spending $16 million in federal loan and grant dollars, part of the government’s commitment to bring high-speed Internet to remote areas. Cook County, with its difficult terrain and far-flung homes, has had some of the worst connectivity in the state.
Overall, Minnesota does better than some parts of the country when it comes to rural connectivity—namely, western states like Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, and Nevada. But it falls below the national average for rural access to download speeds of 10 megabits per second, a common standard for "high speed." While 74 percent of rural residents nationally have access to that speed, only 71 percent of rural residents in Minnesota do. Read the whole report here (PDF).
"We have a couple of hundred miles of fiber built," Buttweiler said earlier this year before the building season began. "We have drops to homes and businesses throughout a good part of Schroeder, Tofte, and Lutsen and part of Grand Marais. We have fiber run all the way from Grand Marais to the mid Gunflint Trail area." He hopes to finish the project by the end of the year.
The goal in spreading broadband across Cook County is to give residents access to more educational opportunities and better health care. If the optimists are right, it will also bring a wider array of jobs. Cook County relies heavily on tourism, which means lots of work in the summer but not so much in the winter. Once the new system is running, people could work remotely via broadband for companies located elsewhere. Also, companies making intellectual products—rather than, say, clothing or furniture—could be headquartered on Lake Superior and do business with the rest of the world via the Internet.
"I think it will increase the entrepreneurship opportunities," said Buttweiler. "It will increase the ability for some small businesses to reach out and expand . . . via online sales." Or it might help with "recruiting younger families to move here because they have the connectivity options available to them."
"The resorts are screaming for it," he said.
"It’s not going to save them," said Longworth, speaking of broadband in rural communities more generally. "It will take more than that. But it’s absolutely necessary. It’s like having a road running in front of your house. If you have a car in your garage, you are not going anywhere if there is no road."
Fiber could be a cure for remoteness. It could connect even the most far-flung place to the rest of the state, nation, and world. And it could be the foundation for entirely new industries to replace the old. You see efforts in Minnesota already. The city of Rushford, in southeastern Minnesota, has thrown itself into nanotechnology. And a former state hospital in Willmar has been transformed into a hub for biotechnology and bioscience called the MinnWest Technology Campus. Given that biotechnology is rooted in living organisms—turned into medicine, fuel, or something else—it seems a natural fit for rural areas.
These cities aim to become "rural knowledge clusters," which in plain language means an area that specializes in something, like the way Roseau and Thief River Falls have become the center of the universe for snowmobiles and ATVs with Polaris and Arctic Cat.
Developing a group of workers capable of filling new manufacturing or technology jobs—or those in other emerging industries such as energy and sustainable foods—is an important piece of the jobs puzzle for rural areas. But the endeavor contains a gamble, too. A community might spend precious resources to train workers for an industry that, in the end, doesn’t come.
Or local workers might not be interested in learning the particular skills or working for the wages offered. Especially since the recession hit, some companies can’t or won’t pay enough to draw the workers they complain they can’t find or they don’t want to train them.
"I’m pessimistic about the idea that, if we develop the set of skills (an industry) will come and drop from the sky," said Kildegaard. "I think that’s sort of a Hail Mary pass that these economic development people have faith in." Yet, he acknowledges the need to close a skills gap, at least in manufacturing. "Lots of light manufacturing outfits out there have openings they can’t fill."
Kildegaard suggested the best path for businesses might be to start small and local and grow, developing a workforce along the way.
In Fergus Falls, the Minnesota State Community and Technical College launched a hands-on sustainable food production program just over two years ago, but announced recently that the program would be suspended after the current students graduate. The school cited low enrollment numbers as the primary reason.
Sue Wika, the program’s coordinator, thinks canceling it is a mistake and chalked up enrollment issues to a lack of promotion. "In western Minnesota, we have the opportunity to become leaders in looking at how the creation and support of local food systems could be a huge step toward moving us toward sustainability," she said. "This is what rural Minnesota needs, people willing to take the risk to be ‘ag’ entrepreneurs."
"We can all look at the demographics and see rural counties bleeding in their numbers," Wika said. "That was definitely our hope, to make this a place (to come to), so we could have migration to outstate."
People in small communities often talk about young people as though they are a breed of rare animal whose migration patterns deserve the closest scrutiny. And in a sense they are. Young people mean a workforce, full classrooms, a future. They are placed into categories for study, like "stayers," "leavers," "returners," and even "boomerangs."
In Carr’s mind, too much energy is spent nurturing the so-called leavers, the high achievers and college-bound kids who move to urban areas and stay there. He thinks, instead, communities should put more effort into the people who are most likely to return or never leave in the first place.
In fact, he said, these kids should be taught to fill jobs in emerging industries, whether health care, precision tooling, high technology, or old-school manufacturing. "You have to say if these are the guys who are going to be here for their entire lives, we have to get them ready," Carr said. "The core issue is, what sort of communal resources are you going to put into the stayers and the returners? To what extent do you prepare them for opportunities in the regional economy?"
The long-standing trend of rural population decline seems hard if not impossible to reverse. Some young people will always be drawn to the cities and their parents will proudly watch them go. They themselves will view this as progress.
"We have developed an education system or even a career system in which 18- to 25-year-olds have been very much encouraged to leave their homes for an education institution that is generally in an economic center," said the Center For Small Towns’ Asche.
In the end, it seems clear that some rural cities and regions will thrive, perhaps because of an ability to keep and train young people, because of a wholesale reinvention, because of grassroots job creation, public investment, collaboration, or because of the efforts of a dedicated group with a big idea. And other rural cities and regions will not.
"You can pick out little places here and there and elsewhere," said Longworth. "They are all trying different stuff. They are working with immigrants or trying to get agri-business or looking into bio. Or they are getting into broadband. In this transition right now between the old and new economy, we don’t know who will survive. There is a lot of experimentation. The difference between now and 10 years ago is that everybody is looking at this and talking about it."
"Some of these little towns may not have a future at all," he said. "They lose their bank and school, and then it’s turn out the lights."
Still others, Longworth said, will exist in a twilight state, not quite thriving but not dying either. They may be places where people buy cheap houses and drive an hour each way to work. "They will survive on that basis, but there won’t be much going on there. And it’s not the kind of midwestern rural civilization that we were used to. There really was a civilization there."
In Minnesota, Marohn said, "We need to face the facts that we are literally going to lose hundreds of our small towns in this state over the next couple of decades. They are just not financially viable. People are moving out. The infrastructure is old. Without huge outside government support and subsidy there’s no way these places will be able to even maintain their base level of service. It’s just not possible."
Kildegaard takes a more sanguine view. "The motto of our food co-op is that it’s been going out of business since 1970," he said. "That is small-town Minnesota in a nutshell. They are still here. They are not going anywhere. Very few towns are dying. And the ones that are, there is little going on in those towns anyway. It’s evolving. There is new immigrant energy in the region. If there are not a lot of employment options, you make something up."
That’s what people like Patrick Moore in Montevideo, Ann Thompson in Milan, and Michael Dagen in Hewitt are doing: making something up. They are forging, in their small individual ways a new future for rural Minnesota.
"If you think about walking around town in 50 years," said Dagen, "what will be here unless something changes?"
Fighting for an American Countryside: by Jennifer Vogel, Ground Level project of MPR News