In the past year, America's small towns and rural areas have been portrayed in sharp contrast to the country's urban centers. Even sympathetic stories tend to paint them as struggling communities facing the loss of industry, the "brain drain" of talented people seeking opportunities elsewhere, and a lack of access to services like broadband Internet and healthcare.
While those struggles are real, focusing on them can downplay the reasons people stay in small towns, like the culture, the wide-open spaces, and the close bonds of family and community. And it's important to think about what could happen if some of those rural issues were solved — if more small towns could become vibrant, thriving places that offer a viable alternative to big cities and suburbs.
The idea of such towns being "small but mighty" was a recurring theme at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation's annual luncheon on October 17. The organization highlighted its past year of grantmaking and investment in economic development and community vitality, as well as early childhood care and education. President and CEO Tim Penny explained how the foundation has, for example, supported immigrant entrepreneurs and new agricultural technologies; how SMIF collaborated with other funders to help the town of Madelia rebuild its main street after a devastating fire; and how SMIF works with and supports smaller community foundations in counties and towns across Southern Minnesota. Collaboration was a key theme, as when SMIF honored Nicole Griensewic Mickelson of Region Nine Development Commission as its Partner of the Year.
But the theme of "small but mighty" really kicked into gear with the keynote presentation by Washington Post data reporter Christopher Ingraham. In 2015, Ingraham wrote a story about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "natural amenities index," which ranks counties according to factors like weather and scenery, and he singled out the place that had landed at the bottom of the list: Red Lake County, Minnesota. He expected it to be just another piece finding the humor and human interest in a set of data, but soon received a wave of what he called "very polite hate mail" from proud Minnesotans. A local business owner decided to keep the publicity going by inviting Ingraham to visit Red Lake Falls and see it for himself.
As a lifelong East Coaster, Ingraham was surprised to find how much he liked northwestern Minnesota, and how friendly and proud of their home the people were. As he said in his talk, "A place is much larger than the sum of its Excel columns."
A few months later, Ingraham and his wife — tired of their small living space, long commutes, and limited time with their young kids — made the previously unthinkable decision to move to small-town Minnesota. Continuing his data reporting work remotely turned out to be a prescient choice for Ingraham, as the following year's presidential election and its shocking result brought new attention to "flyover country." Even that was an opportunity for assumptions to be challenged, though — when Ingraham's editor was looking to interview Trump voters, he went to the group of old guys who gathered at the local gas station every morning, only to find that they had all supported Clinton.
When Ingraham announced his family's move to rural Minnesota, he recalled, he received messages from people all over the world who had made similar moves to the country, or who had always wanted to. He shared a Pew Research Center poll from 2014 in which more than half of respondents said their "ideal community type" was small town or rural. The fact that more people don't live or stay in those communities, then, isn't so much about preference as it is about whether people see it as a viable option.
With remote work more possible than ever and Southern Minnesota facing an acute worker shortage, the jobs are there. Ingraham's speech, and the SMIF annual luncheon as a whole, highlighted that small towns and rural areas can offer an amazing quality of life if their promise is recognized.
That's why we need programs that continue to make such communities more livable and more supportive of entrepreneurship and innovation. After Ingraham's presentation, SMIF announced the towns in which they're piloting the new Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program: Blue Earth, Lake City, Le Sueur, Lanesboro/Spring Valley, and Spring Grove. These five communities, all of 5,000 people or less, will be supported to nurture their own entrepreneurs and small businesses, and to grow their own wealth from within. The program is a collaboration of SMIF, the University of Minnesota Extension, the Blandin Foundation, the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, and Region Nine Development Commission.
As a company with its roots in rural southern Minnesota — our founder Janie Hanson grew up near Frost, Minnesota (pop. 198) and attended Blue Earth Area High School — we're excited to see this investment in rural entrepreneurship and the vitality of small towns. And we're eager to continue supporting initiatives to make those communities more welcoming and viable for founders and innovators, including improving broadband access and supporting educational programs for entrepreneurs.
Thanks for having us at the annual luncheon, SMIF — we can't wait to see and be part of what's next!