Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Shrinking Towns And Rural Migration

Generally, journalists do a lousy job of covering demographic change. Conventional wisdom is reinforced. The myth persists. Jan Biles of the Topeka Capital-Journal bucks the trend:

Rob Fillion, executive director of the Smoky Hill Development Corporation in Ellsworth County, said that county is seeing economic growth and static census numbers.

"The labor pool is strong, businesses are thriving," Fillion said.

Groundbreakings were recently held for a $5 million John Deere implement company and a $1.5 million building that will house a relocating bank. Fillion said a national retail store will be coming to the town, a new child care center will open, and the Ellsworth Correctional Facility will be expanding in two years.

"I expect 150 new jobs coming to Ellsworth over the next two to three years," he said.

The town of 3,120 recently finished a streetscape project involving light poles and in-laid brick funded by the Kansas Department of Transportation. After seeing the result of that project, some business owners have refurbished the exterior of their buildings.

The city also has a quality broadband system and offers several incentives to attract new businesses and residents, such as rebates through industrial revenue bonds and establishment of a tax increment financing district so property taxes will help pay for infrastructure in a housing development.

"We've done a good job of being creative to entice people here," he said.

Doug Gerber, city manager of Goodland, said youth in that city have been ingrained with the notion they have to leave to go to school or have a career.

"We haven't ingrained enough that they can go and come back," Gerber said. "It requires a cultural and attitudinal shift. We need to redefine the definition of success."

Granted that the meat of the article are the people quoted. That's the unflinching and sophisticated viewpoint. Biles is the one who strings it all together to create a compelling narrative that will channel the conversation in a productive direction. The long quote above is just a snippet.

I emphasized Gerber's comment because I think his advice is good for any shrinking community, rural or urban. We've worked plenty hard to convince young people to stay. I see the evidence every year, every decade. As Ben Winchester's research shows, what matters is who comes back.

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