Some urban adults returning to rural Minn. [UPDATED]Published 9:30am Friday, May 18, 2012 Updated 11:32am Friday, May 18, 2012
By Dave Peters and Jennifer Vogel
Minnesota Public Radio News
Although the pace has been slowed by an economy that discouraged mobility, people in their 30s and 40s have continued to move to parts of rural Minnesota that otherwise are characterized by populations that are aging and declining, new research shows.
In a study published online Wednesday by University of Minnesota Extension, rural sociologist Ben Winchester reports that trends he identified earlier from the 1990 and 2000 census reports continue in numbers from the 2010 census.
One shift in the first decade of this century is that even in some outstate counties — those around Willmar, Mankato and Marshall, for example —people entering their middle years are moving to more rural counties. In Winchester’s earlier research, that trend largely involved people that age leaving the Twin Cities metro area for the rest of the state.
The results add nuance to larger trends of population decline, young people leaving and elderly populations increasing in rural areas.
“While we lose the kids, we gain the people aged 30 to 49 and a lot of these people coming into our rural communities are arriving with high levels of education, with earning power, with experience and with children,” Winchester said. “It’s counterintuitive.”
Winchester’s new study, “Continuing the Trend: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers,” found similar trends outside Minnesota but cited housing debt and the recession as reasons migration generally slowed down in the country.
The report notes that the “brain drain” of young people continues as people aged 18 to 25 leave home for college and broader horizons. But at the same time, the study found, almost all rural counties in Minnesota saw the number of people in their 30s and 40s rise above what would have been expected had no one moved in.
Winchester calls the phenomenon the “brain gain” because it represents people whose careers are in full swing and who bring skills and education to an area.
The lumberyard in Dawson is now run by a young man who moved back to town, she said.
“Perfect example of a local boy who went to school, started a career, had a baby and had an opportunity to come home and purchase a thriving business,” Lehmann said. “His wife was not from the area. Both are happy they bought the business and a new home. They’ve really taken root.”
State demographer Susan Brower, who wasn’t involved in the research, said she found the results interesting, but said the story is masked by overall population trends.
Nonetheless, she said, “there’s still population loss just because of the huge out-migration among young people.”
Winchester doesn’t dispute that.
“The kids leaving our communities certainly outnumber those returning,” he said.
But Winchester thinks the research provides a lesson for rural communities that want to tap into some people’s desires to go rural, provided they can “get themselves on the map” for potential new residents.
Why are people moving to rural areas? Typically not for jobs. In surveys of residents who have moved to rural areas, people cited what they perceive as a higher quality of life, a slower pace, greater security, lower housing costs and a better place to raise children.
Karen Tolkkinnen, a Twin Cities native who lives in Clitherall in Otter Tail County, said, she finds it easier to feel part of the community in a smaller town.
“You can move to a rural area and it’s not long before you’re in the grocery store and recognize that lady from church or that guy from the play you saw last weekend,” she said. “City life can be pretty anonymous, but in the country, you might actually have gone to school with the EMT who gives you CPR, or be an ex-in-law to the township clerk. This familiarity can be good or bad, but so far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”
But not everything goes well. Alyssa Besonen, who left Willmar for Madison, a smaller town, said she and her husband wanted to simplify their lives but did not find the change easy.
“It has been a much more difficult transition than I anticipated,” she said. “Many people who are here grew up and have family connections.”
Dave Konshok, who moved to his childhood home of Park Rapids after 20 years in the Air Force said the biggest challenge of living in rural areas or small towns is economic: making enough money to survive and thrive.
“It’s very unlikely a high-paying job will even exist, let alone be handed to you. You have to dial down your financial expectations, while at the same time be ready to do whatever it takes to survive financially,” he said. “What I like best about small town life is convenience – everything is close by, whether that’s the grocery store or walking paths through the woods. I also love that strong sense of community rarely found elsewhere.”