Small towns can sell their lifestyle, not just their jobs

·3 min read

For years, ambitious young people moved away from the small towns and rural areas in which they had grown up, seeking a brighter future in the big city.

Several factors drove this migration: the increasing mechanization of farm work meaning fewer workers were needed, small-town businesses ending or needing less manual labor, and simply fewer people wanting to stay in a rural area to either farm or operate a small-town business. As more and more young people moved to large cities, many small towns faded away to a few businesses and perhaps a church.

But in recent decades, according to Gallup and Pew surveys, roughly half of all Americans say their ideal place to live is a small town or rural area. Those in ages 30-49 (the millennials and some Gen Xers) with children have increased the populations of rural communities, as outlined in an article titled "Rural Rebound" by Rachel Hutton in the June 19, 2022, Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Promoting the move to small towns and rural communities has been a project of the state of Minnesota for a long time, even before the pandemic made this more appealing and the increase of remote work made it more possible.

Otter Tail County in northwestern Minnesota has taken this mission to a new level, hiring a Rural Rebound initiative coordinator with the goal of making this part of the state as well-known and appealing as the North Shore or southeastern Minnesota bluff country.

Using social media and such modern communication as a video series, coordinator Erik Osberg first lets people know they can have the lifestyle they prefer and then invites them to visit the area to see it firsthand. He quotes the data: woodsy Otter Tail County, between Alexandria and Detroit Lakes, has 1,048 lakes, more than any other county in this country. Its biggest town is Fergus Falls at 14,000, with a few other towns of a few thousand. It, in short, is the relaxed small-town setting of which stressed city dwellers dream.

Osberg's approach is based on research by Ben Winchester, a sociologist from University of Minnesota Extension. Winchester preaches the gospel of not trying to keep recent high school graduates from leaving but to seek those who've been out there a while and have an education and job skills to relocate to a rural community for a better way of life. He doesn't worry about the brain drain of high school grads leaving but seeks what he calls a "brain gain" into small communities.

Those moving into a community often aren't moving back to their hometown. Some do want to be closer to family and old friends and some move for a job, but according to a 2019 survey of 600 people moving into rural communities, the most common reason for moving to a small rural community is for a better way of life. They had a desire for a simpler, slower-paced life in a safe, affordable community with good access to outdoor recreation.

This was especially true after the past few years of the pandemic and the increasing crime and violence in large cities. The pandemic also allowed many people to work remotely, making their job something they could do from home, which could be somewhere other than the big city.

Areas seeking a brain gain could deal with their dwindling populations as Rural Rebound does, by getting the word out that a saner, more pleasant life is possible by relocating to a less-populated area. They might even want to try what Osberg did last fall, a series of videos called "Rural by Choice" hosted by a Twin Cities broadcaster. In it, Osberg explored why people like living in small-town communities and shows them through footage what's it like to live where they can enjoy fishing nearby or friendly exchanges at the local community pancake feed. He believes selling the lifestyle will attract more residents than the old model of promising jobs in an area that happens to appeal.

In the Otter Tail County area, at least, it seems to be working.

— This is the opinion of Times Writers Group member Lois Thielen, a dairy farmer who lives near Grey Eagle. Her column is published monthly.

This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: Small towns can sell their lifestyle, not just their jobs