By Starrla Cray
WINSTED People sometimes have the perception that small towns in America are “dying,” but University of Minnesota Extension Educator Neil Linscheid has found that this isn’t the case.
“Small towns and rural communities are changing that’s true but they’re not dying,” he said. “That word dying is an example of adding some conclusion to data, and I don’t think that fits with what’s really going on out there.”
Linscheid spoke to members of Winsted’s Economic Development Authority (EDA), parks commission, and other city representatives Monday evening about demographic trends locally and nationwide.
“One of things I’m an expert in is working with the US Census data,” he said, explaining that the data may appear as through rural communities are shrinking, but there is more to the story.
Digging into the data
In 1970, 26 percent of the US population was classified as “rural,” compared to 19 percent in 2010. Classifications changed during that time, though, so cities like Mankato went from “rural” to “urban.”
Also, the total population increased, so rural areas actually grew in number, from 53.6 million in 1970 to 59.5 million in 2010.
Populations aren’t stagnant, either. Linscheid noted that 50 percent of Americans move every five years.
Those who move into small towns are often between the ages of 30 and 34, according to Linscheid. At that age, people are typically looking for a safe, friendly place to raise their family.
“The areas where there continue to be losses for rural counties are the 18- to 24-year-old range,” Linscheid said. “That is the most difficult group of people to predict what they are going to do. They are exploring the world and moving all over the place.”
People at that age also might be pursuing higher education in a bigger city, he noted.
“These patterns are extremely consistent as we look across the state,” he said.
In McLeod County, population has been slightly growing overall.
“We’re doing OK at attracting younger families,” he said.
In Winsted, Linscheid said, “You guys are doing pretty good.” From 1990 to 2000, the only group that lost population was the 60- to 64-year-old range.
“There are a lot of places that would just love it if their graph looked like this,” Linscheid commented.
The “big gains” slowed down somewhat in Winsted from 2000 to 2010, but there were still young families moving into the community.
Linscheid and his team has spent years researching why people move to one community over another. For rural areas, they found people are looking for a simpler pace of life, safety and security, and low-cost housing. Other considerations include proximity to relatives, opportunity to make a living, open space, quality education, recreation, and health care.
Of people who relocate to small towns, 36 percent lived there previously. More than two-thirds have bachelor’s degrees and annual household incomes above $50,000, and about half have children living with them.
Once people decide to move to an area, they usually consider three to five different communities.
Linscheid presented a program called “Marketing Hometown America,” which helps small towns make a plan for attracting new residents.
A few examples include:
• promoting the student-teacher ratio at schools;
• sharing stories of graduates who are telecommuting or have started businesses in their hometown;
• highlighting opportunities in hunting, geocaching, or other open space activities;
• offering incentives to belong to the local chamber of commerce;
• offering incentives for new housing construction; and
• building or renovating recreational amenities.
If the City of Winsted chooses to participate in the program, the cost would be $1,750. No decision was made during Monday’s meeting.
“If a group decides to proceed, we will form a steering committee and begin planning the process,” Linscheid noted.
The City of Litchfield recently completed the program, which lasted about six months and had more than 150 participants. Results included working to update the community website, creating videos about stories in the community, rejuvenating an effort to build a wellness center, working to build a dog park, and hosting a National Night Out event.
Residents of Dassel began the program earlier this spring. They plan to share their project status during the city’s Red Rooster Days celebration in September.