MORRIS, Minn. – In his regular travels to small Minnesota towns, where he discusses economic and demographic trends in rural areas and takes the pulse of local leaders, Kelly Asche hears a common lament: Too many young people are moving away. While it's an understandable and real sentiment, he refuses to join in the despair.
"For some reason, people often think that success means keeping all of their 18-year-olds — that they have to have every single age group in town completely engaged," said Asche, a program coordinator at the Center for Small Towns, a branch of the University of Minnesota, Morris. "We want to broaden that perspective."
For many leaders in Minnesota's smallest places, the conventional wisdom about rural Minnesota — that its small towns are stagnant, that it offers little cultural richness, that all the kids grow up and move away — has long felt frustratingly overdone.
Changing that perception, and the harm it does to civic pride and initiative, has become part of the mission of the center, which is celebrating the 20th year since its founding in this college town of 5,300 in Stevens County.
"It's hard to get people to look at what they have as assets," Asche said.
In presentations to civic groups, Asche draws on the research of Ben Winchester, a demographer at University of Minnesota Extension whose work has shown a "brain gain" — a re-migration of young adults — in many parts of rural Minnesota.
Specifically, Winchester found gains of residents 30 to 49 years old in most of Minnesota's rural counties between 1990 and 2000 and between 2000 and 2010. Winchester's research also has shown an increase in the number of nonprofits — from locally grown food groups to trail maintenance clubs — in the state's most rural counties, even those that have lost population.
Beyond those numbers, Asche points to the work of small-town artists and writers, the efforts of small communities to integrate recent immigrants and the impact of technology on employment as signs of rural vibrancy.
"We are certainly not here to say that everything is great," Asche said. But "the discussion is often framed as, 'Oh, we need to do something to help small towns!' " A more meaningful starting point, he argued, would begin with a recognition that "there is a load of talent and social capital right here that needs to be tapped into."
The Center for Small Towns opened in 1995 as a community outreach program, a place where academic work met the needs of the communities surrounding the university. It since has grown into a kind of regional think tank at the forefront of a deeper exploration of the economy and culture of rural life.
In early June, 360 people attended the center's 2015 Rural Arts and Culture Summit. If a theme emerged, said Kerri Barnstuble, who also works as a program coordinator at the center, it was this: "We are here, in this creative space, by choice."
Last fall, Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux, the 32-year-old, newly elected mayor of Grand Marais, invited Asche to present the "brain gain" findings, which he found to be a helpful antidote to the current mood.
"We are fighting against the idea that everything has gone so far downhill that things just can't be like they were 'back in the day,' whenever that might have been," DeCoux said.
Gregg Aamot is a longtime Minnesota journalist who spent a decade with the Associated Press. Aamot is the author of "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees" and teaches English at Ridgewater College.