Ruth Rosengren wanted to return to rural Minnesota after living in St. Paul, so the 37-year-old moved with her husband to Fergus Falls.
Katie Kouba, 35, craved small-town life after living on both U.S. coasts and moved with her family to Worthington. Tony Moskowitz and his family traded the glistening skyline and busy streets of Chicago for the towering pines and lower cost of living in Ely.
“I feel like I’m on a permanent vacation,” said Moskowitz, 41, who runs his own business from his home. “Here it’s much more peaceful. It’s so quiet. It’s like the last refuge.”
They’re all members of a growing migration of people in their 30s and 40s moving to rural Minnesota — a movement that foundations, nonprofits and local entities are hoping to boost even further with new strategies to recruit and retain newcomers. Across the state, more than a dozen initiatives have popped up, from a nonprofit on the Iron Range planning social events to help attract and keep young adults to a community foundation’s campaign touting Otter Tail County as the place to live.
“It’s a high priority for us,” said Anna Wasescha, CEO of the West Central Initiative foundation in Fergus Falls, which supports several efforts to help draw more young professionals who can fill job openings and often have children to fill classrooms. “We want to be sure our region of Minnesota is vibrant and sustainable.”
The Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids has already found evidence of growing interest in small-town Minnesota: A study earlier this year showed more rural Minnesotans are staying put, with fewer considering moving to an urban area. Yet more urban residents — those in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Mankato, Moorhead, Rochester and St. Cloud — are considering moving to rural areas. The top reason they cited? Quality of life.
“The next five, 10 years are going to be a big wave of change across rural Minnesota as we welcome a new generation,” said Ben Winchester, a St. Cloud-based University of Minnesota Extension rural sociologist. “It’s good news for our small towns.”
Many resident recruitment efforts were inspired to start because of Winchester’s research showing that rural Minnesota towns aren’t just experiencing a “brain drain” of people in their 20s but also a “brain gain” of people 30 to 49 years old. Only a third of newcomers are returning to hometowns, so most are putting down new roots for the quality of life and cheaper housing, he said.
Winchester and others are updating his research — results of a survey of 20,000 people across 20 counties will be released this fall — but so far, he said, his work across the state shows that the “brain gain” trend that started years ago is continuing.
“No place is immune,” he said. But “how welcoming is your town is the Number 1 question I get.”
‘Rural isn’t dying’
Many of the six regional Initiative Foundations, first established by the McKnight Foundation three decades ago, are trying to tap into the shift.
In Bemidji, the Northwest Minnesota Foundation is doling out $100,000 to cities in a grant program for amenities that attract families — from trails to maps of attractions.
In Fergus Falls, the West Central Initiative began a marketing campaign called Live Wide Open in 2016 to share stories about why residents are moving from the Twin Cities or other states. The foundation holds “welcome home” events for natives, hoping to persuade them to return, and also helped fund a nonprofit, the Glenwood Lakes Area Welcome Center, to expand a welcoming program and start a newcomer group.
Also in Fergus Falls, Erik Osberg may have the only job of its kind in the nation as Otter Tail County’s “rural rebound initiative coordinator,” initially funded by grants from the Blandin Foundation and West Central Initiative, among other sources, and now county supported. Osberg tracks data and creates videos and social media posts promoting the county’s 24 communities to show millennials and Gen X-ers there’s a vibrant, affordable life with job openings — and no congested commute.
“Rural isn’t dying; it’s changing, and it’s changing for the better,” Osberg said.
He also helps organize a “grab-a-bite program” in Fergus Falls, pairing residents with newcomers to help make a friend and learn about the community, and puts on a concert on a frozen lake in the winter to showcase the county to Fargo and Twin Cities visitors.
“If we’re going to win the recruiting battle … we need to be the most welcoming community in the state,” he said. “In the old days, when someone moved in, you’d bring over a hot dish.”
After years of vacationing nearby at her in-laws’ cabin, Amy Baldwin, 44, and her husband moved from the Twin Cities to Fergus Falls four years ago when they had their first child. She said they wanted smaller school class sizes and a quality of life like the one she had growing up in rural North Dakota; plus, her husband can work remotely for a Minnetonka software company.
“We can go five minutes and be fishing,” said Baldwin, who now works as Otter Tail County’s community development director, tracking the “rural rebound” through the county’s growing population and increasing kindergarten class sizes. “It’s amazing how many people we meet with similar stories.”
That’s in part why Rosengren helped launch Fergus Falls’ first co-working space this summer while working remotely for a California-based web development company. “I hope more people see … Fergus Falls as a viable place to live without giving up a job you want,” she said.
In northern Minnesota, a group of young adults launched the nonprofit ReGen in 2015 after the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) started an advisory board of young adults asking what they needed to stay and live there. The nonprofit tries to help retain young professionals by organizing social events like snowtubing and game night while fundraising to revamp towns.
“There is a little bit of isolation that happens,” said David Hughes Jr., 35, who grew up on the Range in Aurora and moved back to the area, attending ReGen events and now leading the nonprofit. “It has helped me with that social aspect.”
Other nonprofits are also focused on better connecting immigrants and other minority groups to the community such as Project FINE in Winona, which has a monthly event for neighbors to get to know one other.
In Mankato, businesses found that young professionals without a social connection left within two years. So in June, the regional chamber of commerce, Greater Mankato Growth, announced a new program matching a resident with a newcomer. Farther south, the chambers in Worthington and Austin also started “concierge” programs to help young professionals adjust to the move.
Kouba, the 35-year-old who moved to Worthington with her husband to raise their three children, now works as the community concierge, helping other new residents.
“It was a leap of faith for sure,” she said about moving here after living in Virginia and California. “I wanted the lifestyle that rural Minnesota had to offer. I love the connection in a small town.”