Rural Matters

For the first time in the history of this country, rural counties have negative population growth, meaning more rural counties lost population than gained between 2010 and 2014. In many of these counties, this has been a trend for more than 100 years. 

Roughly 46.2 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, reside in rural counties, which spread across 72 percent of the nation's land area.  

Fewer, larger farms are not contributing to population growth, nor is alternative energy, such as ethanol and wind. Wages are not equal to those in the metro areas.

So why is this happening? Should rural communities give up? How can counties reverse the downward spiral?

Ask these questions at home. At your board of supervisors/city council/economic development team/school board meetings. At the coffee shop. Ask them to people who do not participate in anything.

  • Are you talking about population decline? More importantly, what are you doing about it? About poverty rates?
  • Is your county still doing economic development the same way as it has for the last 100 years? Is the county getting the results you want?
  • How about attitudes? What is said of your county? What do you say about it? Your youth?
  • Do you have an entrepreneurial ecosystem in place, not just a class in school?
  • Are you discussing what is happening in your school district with the public? More student growth than can be handled? Whole-grade sharing, sharing sports, merger, consolidation?
  • Are you constantly looking for new people to engage and participate?
  • What’s happening with your hospital? Are you birthing babies? What is its stability to stay open?
  • How about housing? Are people just changing location or are new people coming to the area?
  • What about income opportunities? Not everyone is cut out to work for someone else. Is your county supportive of people starting their own businesses and will your community support them? Be sure to see the accompanying pyramid that paints the picture.
  • What is your county/ you doing to attract new people?

Depending on the answers for your county, it may be time to think about changing up your approach to community growth to attract newcomers and move that people needle UP.

This pyramid shows where new jobs are created, but the efforts of most economic development programs are geared to recruit “that” business to town so we can create “good” jobs. If we attract “that” business, it may be good for the county, but a loss for the community “that” business left. We’ve just shifted location, and perpetuated a win-lose game plan. Rural must work differently – together – to grow.

Forward-thinking metro areas support rural development because, as people move to “the city,” the hollowing-out of surrounding communities will minimize potential employees in their current and future workforce pool. Young people have been moving to the metro areas for years, but with the decline in rural school populations, that source may dry up.

Healthcare impacted

Also affected by declining population, access to medical practitioners and facilities is crucial for Iowa’s aging rural population. In addition to healthcare itself, in many counties, the healthcare system is a major employer.

Two summer articles from the National Conference of State legislatures, NCSL, brought sobering news for rural areas.

The National Rural Health Association wanted to know where this trend of depopulation is heading. They teamed up with the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina and iVantage, a health analytics firm. The goal was to identify rural hospital closures when they happen, collect a snapshot of how many rural hospitals are struggling, and where they are located.

The research identifies 2,078 rural hospitals, of which, 1,284 are critical-access facilities. They found 210 were “most vulnerable,” meaning they could potentially close tomorrow. Another 463 were simply labeled as “at risk,” meaning they could close at any point in the next couple of years. Together, 32.3% of all rural hospitals in the U.S. are compromised.

As more young people leave rural towns to go to work in the larger metro areas, we see the most vulnerable people, the elderly, being left without critical services where they live. Find the full article here

Birthing Specialists

The second article is just as concerning for communities longing for young people starting families: medical professionals like OB/GYNs and nurse mid-wives are in short supply across the country. If your county doesn’t have specialists to deliver, are your general practitioners doing so? If travel is required for families to give birth, will the availability of a birthing facility impact their decision to live in your county?

So what is a county to do to keep going and growing?

These recommendations will move you ahead.

  • Make sure you truly welcome and include all new people. Most communities want to grow, but often don’t want newcomers and their ideas, unless the new people think, look like, act, and believe like the community. States with the greatest percentage of population gain have a higher percentage of people who were NOT born in that state than people who were. Ask a newcomer – even someone who has lived in the community 20+ years - how they feel. You may be surprised at what you hear if their grandparents aren’t buried in the cemetery.
  • Much of rural Iowa has amazing telecommunications infrastructure, thanks to rural telephone company investments. New home-based businesses can move in. Companies can adopt telecommuting options, while communities and businesses create more family-friendly policies. Check with yours to see how to grow these options.
  • Capture the transfer of wealth, using it to build and support new enterprises and business succession.
  • Use social networking to build relationships with 30- to 49-year-olds who would love to live in safe communities and build a global business.
  • Consider and develop family-friendly policies in every discussion. Early care and education must be considered “critical infrastructure” that requires community and business investment to attract families and support workforce needs. 
  • Teach communities, businesses, families, organizations the art of value-based dialogue to move contentious issues forward.  
  • Develop entrepreneurial ecosystems to create an entrepreneurial environment.
  • Teach pertinent skills to 9 – 12th-grade students to connect school-to-workplace habits. Encourage students to see themselves as entrepreneurs who can build businesses in their home community.
  • One of your best youth retention strategies is to work very intentionally with your students labeled “at-risk,” as these young people have great, creative ideas to develop into solid businesses. They will likely attend community college, trade school, or jump right into your local workforce and lead your town serving on city council, church, and school boards. Connect with them now to be good leaders.
  • Create strong relationships to change the culture and dynamics between communities that may have been damaged by athletic competition, county charter arguments, and/or school mergers.

If you look at these suggestions and say, “We are doing this,” but are still losing population and your poverty rate is stable or rising, think again.  The measures of improvement are a growing population, increased community engagement, a younger average age, and decreased poverty rates.

You may have to work around the “good ‘ol boys” clubs or maybe you are a part of one. Decades-old methods of attraction no longer work. If still using them, you’re likely losing population, schools, hospitals, and youth.

No more silos! Area leadership must work together to grow. County boards of supervisors, hospitals, schools, city councils, chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, civic groups, community and private foundations – you know your community – will accomplish more, faster - when they work together.  If there’s a bold, new idea to try, do it!

How are decisions made in your county? A community best-functions when all people get together to work on public problems. This creates wealth, where entrepreneurial opportunities are identified and developed for the good of the whole.

You will know you are on the right track to be successful when you have:

  • collaborative leadership,
  • shared vision,
  • shared goals,
  • youth involvement,
  • a communication system to disperse community information and
  • all citizens see a role to engage.

A Quick Tale of Two Cities

Chappell, NE. Interchange on I-80 

Chappell, NE. Interchange on I-80 

Sidney, NE. Interchange on I-80

Sidney, NE. Interchange on I-80

Our work takes us across the country. Early in his career, Frank was the economic developer in western Nebraska, so we stopped en route to Colorado last summer, where we were the keynote for the Progressive 15 county economic developers’ meeting, and took these snapshots for the story of Cabela’s.

From Cabela’s website: “In 1961, Dick Cabela came up with a plan to sell fishing flies he purchased while at a furniture show in Chicago. Upon returning home to Chappell, Nebraska, Dick ran a classified ad in the Casper, Wyoming, newspaper reading: "12 hand-tied flies for $1." It generated one response.

“Undaunted, Dick formulated a new plan, rewriting the ad to read "FREE Introductory offer! 5 hand-tied flies....25c Postage....Handling" and placing it in national outdoor magazines. It didn't take long for the orders to begin arriving from sportsmen and women around the country.

“In the beginning, Dick and his wife, Mary, ran the business from the kitchen table of their home in Chappell.“By 1964, continued success and growth demanded a bigger and better location. The operation was moved from their kitchen table to the basement of Dick and Jim's father's furniture store and then on to various buildings in Chappell. In 1969, Cabela's was operating in a 50,000 square-foot vacant John Deere building in neighboring downtown Sidney, Nebraska.”*

*The missing piece of this story is that the city fathers of Chappell were approached for help into a bigger building as the business grew. The response given the Cabela’s? “No one helped us get started. Why should we help you?” 30 miles away, Sidney’s city fathers asked how they could help the company grow.

Today, Cabela's world headquarters along Interstate 80 in Sidney encompasses more than 250,000 square feet. (The week this article was published, Cabela's announced their sale to Bass Pro for $5.5 Billion dollars. Not bad for a business starting in a basement.)

Was this a missed opportunity? Maybe yes, maybe no. You decide. What steps are you taking to encourage your county to flourish?

Global Horizons has a plan to recruit people to live, work, and play in your communities. 

Editors note: This article was published in the October 2016 issue of the Iowa State Association of Counties "Iowa County" magazine.