Minnesota's small-towns: A tour of a crisis in the making

  • Updated: March 8, 2014 - 6:00 PM

Barring disasters, small-town Minnesota doesn’t get the attention it should.

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A couple of years ago, the U.S. Postal Service discussed closing locations like this one in Hope, Minn., before pulling back from that plan and seeking alternative ways to find efficiencies. Still, many small towns in Minnesota face broad decline in their economies and infrastructure. You won’t hear much about the future vision for these cities. The struggle to maintain what they have uses up all the air in the room.

Photo: David Brewster • Star Tribune,

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When the Interstate 35W bridge fell, Minnesotans were moved to action.

When a tornado hit north Minneapolis, and when floods destroyed parts of Moorhead, the state responded to rebuild those communities.

Bridge failures, floods, tornadoes and other disasters are crises that are easy to identify. We see the news helicopters flying overhead.

But in 2014, Minnesota must come to terms with a crisis unfolding across much of the state that will not attract the attention of the news choppers. This crisis is not threatening metro communities like Minneapolis or Eden Prairie. Nor is it closing in on regional centers such as Rochester, Mankato, St. Cloud and Moorhead, or popular lake districts like those around Alexandria or Brainerd.

The crisis is gripping the vast majority of Minnesota’s smallest cities and counties, which are slowly withering and dying on the vine.

A recent presentation by Brad Finseth, executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, shed light on the magnitude of the crisis with data that focused on Minnesota’s most rural areas.

But to get a real feel for the crisis, take a long drive across Minnesota on rural highways such as U.S. 75, U.S. 212, MN 9 or MN 30. Make sure to tour small cities like Benson, Olivia, Tracy and Montevideo. Stop in smaller cities like Balaton, Ada, Hallock and Wheaton and have a cup of coffee. (Don’t even think about asking for a latte, but you might be able to have egg coffee.) Take a moment to stop in some really small cities, like Echo, Holloway and Euclid. Don’t expect to find a cup of coffee here. Most of the small-town coffee shops and cafes have disappeared.

In fact, what you may notice first in these communities is the number of empty storefronts and blank spaces on Main Street. The hardware store is gone. Maybe one cafe and one bar will still be open. The grocery store is out on the highway now and sells gas. In the smallest cities and towns, don’t expect to find a medical clinic or a dentist’s or a lawyer’s office.

If the restaurant is still there, make sure to eat lunch, have a beef commercial and order the homemade pie. Most of your fellow diners will be in their 50s and 60s. Be prepared to be “checked out,” as you are not one of the locals.

Continuing your tour, you will see large grain-handling facilities with “Co-Op” in their names — and there are still banks in many of the smaller towns. You might spot a farm-implement dealer on the edge of town, but most of those have closed or consolidated in larger communities.

Movie theater? Not a chance. Thrift and secondhand stores are fairly common, and many of the smaller towns have nursing homes and assisted-living facilities that look new or have recent additions spreading from an original building. Housing throughout the city looks a little ragged, and you’ll see empty lots where a house used to stand. Other houses are abandoned and are close to falling down. On the edge of town, a newer home may have been built, but you won’t see a subdivision. You will probably find an old school building. If it’s in use, the name on the school will incorporate the county or region or multiple nearby cities. If it is not open, it may have found another use, but in too many cases it stands empty.

A look at the demographic trends in these rural communities is sobering. In more than 20 of Minnesota’s most rural counties, population peaked before the 1940 census. In Lincoln County (county seat: Ivanhoe), the population reached its high mark in 1930 at 11,303. The 2010 census found fewer than 6,000 people living in Lincoln County.

In the last 25 years, the population of Minnesota’s 25 smallest counties has shrunk by nearly 13 percent — a reduction of almost 30,000 people, like having a city the size of Roseville disappear.

If you look deeper into the census data, you will see that the median age of the population in these rural counties is 44 to 49 years old, whereas counties like Hennepin and Ramsey have median ages of 35. In Wright County (Buffalo), more than 30 percent of the population is under 18, while less than 21 percent is under 18 in Big Stone County (Ortonville). In Traverse County (Wheaton), it is estimated that there will be eight births or less for each 1,000 inhabitants next year — or fewer than 30 births in the entire county. Scott County can expect 15 births per thousand — 38 births per week.

The death rate per thousand in Scott County is less than four. In Traverse County, it is over 19.

Statistics on housing and poverty tell the same story about the need to respond to the rural crisis. In Lac qui Parle County (Madison), 49 percent of the houses were built before 1940. Compare that with Washington County, where less than 9 percent of the housing is that old. The median value of a home in Redwood County (Redwood Falls), is about $70,000, while a median value home in Hennepin County is worth $219,000. Almost 15 percent of the elderly and 15 percent of children live in poverty in Traverse County, twice the level of Dakota County (and about the same as Hennepin).

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  • You can find large grain-handling facilities in many small Minnesota towns, and often, there is still a bank. This scene is from the farming community of Lewiston, with a population of approximately 1,600 that has been fairly stable.

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