As noted in prior posts, many rural parts of the U.S., including Minnesota, have aging and declining populations that present many problems for the regions. But there are hopeful signs that this trend may be reversing.
“The Blandin Foundation (Grand Rapids, MN) has found evidence of growing interest in small-town Minnesota: A study earlier this year showed more rural Minnesotans are staying put, with fewer considering moving to an urban area. Yet more urban residents — those in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Mankato, Moorhead, Rochester and St. Cloud — are considering moving to rural areas. The top reason they cited? Quality of life.”
This conclusion is supported by a University of Minnesota Extension rural sociologist, Ben Winchester, who said, “Rural Minnesota towns aren’t just experiencing a ‘brain drain’ of people in their 20s but also a ‘brain gain’ of people 30 to 49 years old. The next five, 10 years are going to be a big wave of change across rural Minnesota as we welcome a new generation. It’s good news for our small towns.”
Now some rural towns in Minnesota are responding to those problems by developing programs to attract younger people to move and establish their homes. These newcomers are “all members of a growing migration of people in their 30s and 40s moving to rural Minnesota—a movement that foundations, nonprofits and local entities are hoping to boost even further with new strategies to recruit and retain newcomers.”
Here is an account of at least some of those programs.
Fergus Falls, Minnesota
Fergus Falls is a town in and the county seat of Otter Tail County in the west central part of the state. The town’s estimated population in 2017 was 13,138, while the County’s was 58,812. The town was incorporated in the late 1870s and is situated along the dividing line between the former great deciduous forest of the Northwest Territories to the east and the great plains to the west, in a region of gentle hills, where the recent geological history is dominated by the recession of the glaciers from the last great Ice Age, with numerous lakes and small rivers.
In the mid-19th century the town and area’s initial settlers were Norwegian immigrants and Union soldiers returning from the Civil War, many of whom became farmers (wheat and corn in the western plains and dairy and hogs in the eastern hills and forests). In the 1950s Interstate Highway 94 was built along the western edge of the town, enhancing the mobility of the town’s residents with many young people leaving town to attend college and not returning.
Now the West Central Initiative Foundation in Fergus Falls is touting Otter Tail County as the place to live and supporting several ways to draw more young professionals to fill job openings and have children to fill classrooms. The Foundation’s CEO, Anna Wasescha, said. “We want to be sure our region of Minnesota is vibrant and sustainable.”
This Foundation began a marketing campaign called “Live Wide Open in 2016 to share stories about why residents are moving from the Twin Cities or other states. . . [It] holds ‘welcome home’ events for natives, hoping to persuade them to return, and also helped fund a nonprofit, the Glenwood Lakes Area Welcome Center, to expand a welcoming program and start a newcomer group.” The Otter Tail County helps these efforts with a “rural rebound initiative coordinator,” who “tracks data and creates videos and social media posts promoting the county’s 24 communities to show millennials and Gen X-ers there’s a vibrant, affordable life with job openings — and no congested commute.” The county’s coordinator, Erik Osberg, said, “Rural isn’t dying; it’s changing, and it’s changing for the better.”
Osberg also helps organize a “grab-a-bite program” in Fergus Falls, pairing residents with newcomers to help make a friend and learn about the community, and puts on a concert on a frozen lake in the winter to showcase the county to Fargo and Twin Cities visitors. “If we’re going to win the recruiting battle … we need to be the most welcoming community in the state.”
One newcomer couple four years ago moved from the Twin Cities to Fergus Falls when they had their first child. The mother said they wanted smaller school class sizes and a quality of life like the one she had growing up in rural North Dakota; plus, her husband can work remotely for a Minnetonka, Minnesota software company. The mother now works as the County’s community development director, tracking the ‘rural rebound’ through the county’s growing population and increasing kindergarten class sizes. “It’s amazing how many people we meet with similar stories.”
Another newcomer and mother, Ruth Rosengren, helped launch Fergus Falls’ first co-working space this summer while working remotely for a California-based web development company. “I hope more people see … Fergus Falls as a viable place to live without giving up a job you want,” she said.
In the southwestern part of the state, Willmar historically was a largely white, Lutheran, Scandinavian town. Now, however, with a population of 19,610 (2010 Census), t is very diverse with its high school having students from 30 other countries speaking at least four foreign languages. In response the high school has two foreign-language cultural liaisons to work with the students and teachers, and local businesses have created an entrepreneurship program for all the students and a Community Integration Center.
In Mankato, a small city of approximately 43,000 in the south-central part of the state, local “businesses found that young professionals without a social connection left within two years.” So the local chamber of commerce “announced a new program matching a resident with a newcomer.”
Last year Mankato’s local newspaper published an editorial, saying, “Here, in the south-central area of the state, we have seen . . . reliance on a diverse workforce both in small cities and in the regional center of Mankato. Meat plants in St. James, Madelia, Butterfield and Windom [smaller cities in southwestern Minnesota] depend heavily on minority workers. Mankato manufacturing plants also hire immigrant workers and a number of immigrants have become small-business owners.”
The editorial ended with these comments: “Population projections predict that as baby boomers retire, enough workers won’t be available to fill the vacant jobs in Minnesota. Our newest segments of population are going to be key to keeping our businesses going. And a continuing tradition of strong public education in Minnesota, with the financial support it deserves, should help train those workers of today and tomorrow.”
Katy Kouba and her husband recently moved to Worthington, Minnesota in the southwest corner of the state in order to raise their three kids in a smaller community after living on both U.S. coasts. She said, “It was a leap of faith, “ but we “wanted the life-style that rural Minnesota had to offer. I love the connection in a small town.” She now works as the community concierge helping other new residents be integrated into the town’s life.
As recounted in a prior post, Worthington’s population has surged from less than 10,000 in 1990 to 13,000 today with a median age of under 36 and foreign immigrants constituting roughly one-third of the population and owning more than 25% of the town’s businesses.
Escapees from Chicago to Ely, Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Canada were Tony Moskowitz and his family. “I feel like I am on permanent vacation,” he said while running his business from his home.
Ely is also part of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, where in 2015 a group of young adults started the nonprofits ReGen to “help retain young professional by organizing social events like snowtubing and game night while fundraising to revamp towns.
The Northwest Minnesota Foundation of Bemidji in the northwestern part of the state, is making grants to cities for amenities that attract families — from trails to maps of attractions.”
In Winona in the southeastern part of the state, Project FINE “has a monthly event for neighbors to get to know one another.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, young professionals moving from large metropolitan areas to smaller cities and towns is happening across the U.S. Such workers are “fueling a renaissance in U.S. cities that lie outside the major job hubs. People who do their jobs from home, freelance or constantly travel for work are migrating away from expensive urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco toward cheaper cities including Boise; Denver; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore.” This has meant that the smaller cities and towns are starting to see fast-rising home prices and traffic congestion.
[i] Eisen, Workers Are Fleeing Big Cities for Smaller Ones—and Taking Their Jobs With Them.,W.S.J. (Sept. 7, 2019).
 See, e.g., More Warnings of the Problems Facing U.S. Aging, Declining Population (Aug. 14, 2019).
 Additional Support for U.S. Needing More Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (May 18, 2019); Willmar, Minnesota, Wikipedia.
 Outstate Minnesota City Aided by Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 5, 2018).