FARGO — Reports about small-town America dying have been greatly exaggerated.
That’s according to Benjamin Winchester, a senior research fellow with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Community Vitality.
Winchester spoke in Fargo on Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the opening of a workshop that is part of the Western Governors’ Association’s “Reimagining the Rural West” initiative.
He began by detailing how, over time, an inaccurate narrative has developed in this country about how rural America is dying and young people are leaving small communities for larger metropolitan areas.
To support such conclusions, he said, some point to shuttered stores and churches as evidence of a rural decline.
Winchester said that while the rural landscape has changed over the decades and some people do move away from smaller communities, it is only part of the picture.
What people don’t often hear about, he said, are the people who move to small communities, particularly people aged 30 to 64.
“This has been happening since the 1970s, but we don’t know it,” Winchester said.
He added that in the past such newcomers might join groups like the Lions or the Chamber of Commerce, which have a broad focus to their activities.
Today, he said, people typically join groups that have a very narrow aim, like snowmobiling.
The important thing, he said, is for communities to recognize newcomers and make them welcome.
Winchester suggested that one way to change common misconceptions about what is happening in rural communities is to change “the narrative” using positive energy instead of negative stereotypes that do not accurately reflect America’s small towns.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, spoke on similar themes, stating that in the past people and families would move to where the jobs are.
Today, he said, jobs are plentiful in many places, including North Dakota, and he said the challenge for communities is to build and promote places “people want to live in”.
Burgum said for that to happen rural areas should focus on developing themselves in three areas: opportunity, connectivity and community.
Burgum and other speakers Tuesday said the issues rural communities in North Dakota wrestle with are the same issues other western states are grappling with and solutions developed for one can benefit all.
“If we want to build a workforce in rural communities, we need to build more livable rural communities,” Burgum said.