Rural revival bucks dire forecasts

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2013 - 8:19 AM

Farm and manufacturing rebounds, technology revive towns predicted to fade.

Today, Osakis — in central Minnesota near Alexandria — doesn’t need to pay people to stay. Population is at an all-time high, having grown by nearly 500 since those anxious days of the 1980s. The school system is adding a classroom’s worth of students each year. Main Street is almost full, and the sporting goods store is expanding its business by 25 percent a year. A craft distillery has grown from five 500-gallon fermenters to 29.

All across Minnesota, cities and towns like Osakis, once assumed to be riding a slow train to nowhere, are proving surprisingly robust. Recoveries in agriculture and rural manufacturing are combining with rapidly spreading high-speed wireless access and other factors to yield numbers that few predicted.

“It is surprising a lot of people just how much life remains in towns once declared dead — or heading that way,” said University of Minnesota demographer Will Craig.

Amid what has been described as a new “golden age” for farm profits and land wealth, the list of the 50 Minnesota counties with the fastest-growing incomes since 2005 includes only one big Twin Cities county. The state’s net farm income has nearly doubled, from $4.5 billion in 2010 to $8.2 billion in 2012.

The town of Jackson, in southwest Minnesota, was one of only four rural cities over 2,500 to suffer significant losses in numbers during this century’s first decade — then it landed a new employer from Europe offering 1,400 jobs.

Studying trends in retail, Craig and a colleague uncovered what they called “astounding” growth in consumer sales in regional centers such as Mankato and Brainerd, and “remarkable” increases in economic activity in many smaller communities — stiff reproofs to the “myth of rural decline and ghost towns.”

As smaller towns have stabilized or grown, those regional centers are humming, said Don Friend, chief of the geography faculty at Mankato State.

“We have a mall designed to serve a quarter of a million people, and it does, because Mankato is the ‘big town’ with the multiplex cinema and the hotel swimming pool and the big chain restaurants.”

With oil-enriched North Dakotans building cabins and the huge baby boom starting to retire, some counties Up North have pace-of-growth expectations rivaling their suburban peers. No longer is a lake country home as frustratingly remote from the wider world as it was before computers, or agonizingly slow modems.

“If you don’t have to endure dial-up modems, it really changes everything,” said Deborah Morse-Kahn, a historian who works from a home in the woods along the North Shore. “I have a FedEx truck or a UPS truck here every other day, and I am constantly running into people I used to know in the Twin Cities who are coming up here permanently, semi-retiring, still eager to be connected to the world — but also loving this sense we have here of living in the middle of a National Geographic special, with bears fishing for trout in a stream near your home.”

State Demographer Susan Brower finds she can startle big-city audiences by asking them how many of the 87 Minnesota counties they think are growing so far this century. It’s not 20, not 30, but 50, in an uninterrupted string stretching from the Iowa border to Canada. Fifty-six are projected to grow by 2030.

True, lots of micro-hamlets are slowly drying up. But, setting aside the boom-bust Iron Range, a rural Minnesota city that started off in 1990 with at least 2,000 people is no more likely than its peers in the seven-county metro area to have suffered appreciable losses in population since.

And there’s new hope even in places that do appear a little limp from the outside, like Kiester, Minn.

‘Real hopeful’

Ms. Schmidt still comes to school in the morning in Kiester, pop. 502, even though the kids don’t.

She’s one of a group of old-timers — boys at one table, girls at another — who gather in the morning for coffee in what used to be the nurse’s office.

For decades she taught German and math here. She can still revisit her classroom, dodging buckets upstairs in the corridor that catch rain seeping in from the decaying roof. Outside the windows, nature is destroying the tennis courts, rising up through jagged cracks. Education moved on to a neighboring town years ago, but the locals still cherish this building, with its trophy cases and walls of preserved class pictures.

  • Size matters: Which towns grew and faded, 2000-2010

    Andi Egbert of the state demographer’s office, drew up these numbers for a recent talk to a banking group -- growth from 2000 to 2010 by size of city.

    • Of the 26 cities with 20-40K people in 2000, only 2 lost more than 3 percent of population (Average: 9 percent growth, or about 2,300 people)

    • Of the 37 cities with 10-20K in 2000, only 6 lost more than 3% (Average: 14% growth, or 1,900 people)

    • Of the 44 cities with 5-10K, only 8 lost more than 3% (Average: 23% growth, or 1,600)

    • Of the 113 cities with 2-5K, 26 lost more than 3% (Average: 16% growth, or 500)

    • Of the 93 cities with 1-2K, 25 lost more than 3% (Average: 12% growth, or 100)

    • Of the 148 cities with 500-1K, 49 lost more than 3% (Average: 10% growth, 80 people)

    • Of the 374 below 500, 178 lost more than 3% (Average: 1% growth or 7 people)

    50 Number of Minnesota’s 87 counties that are growing in population

    4 Rural cities of more than 2,500 that lost population from 2000-2010

    $8.2B Minnesota’s net farm income in 2012, up from $4.5 billion in 2010

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