A two-day summit on how to improve life in our small, rural towns opens this morning in north-central Iowa’s Hamilton County.
The keynote speaker of the “Rural That Works” conference is Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota Extension. Winchester says we need to rewrite the rural narrative.
“This isn’t your grandpa’s rural, we’re not all farmers anymore,” Winchester says. “The economy, social life and demographically, we’re very different than we used to be.” In decades past, people may recall how all of the Main Street storefronts were filled and how primary industries were very apparent in our small towns. Things have changed, he says, but not necessarily for the worse.
“It’s easy when you drive up and down Main Street to see the boarded up buildings or where the elementary school used to be,” Winchester says, “but at the same time, our housing stocks are many times filled, our populations continue to migrate in and out, and we get people involved in social life, so we’ve got a number of folks even creating nonprofits around their interests.” While concerns are often raised about the “brain drain” as high school graduates move away, he says some rural areas are seeing a “brain gain” as young-to-middle-aged professionals move in.
“What we’ve found here in Minnesota, through our research, and really across the country, is a trend of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s moving to our rural communities,” Winchester says. “They’re moving there for a variety of reasons, quality of life, safety and security, for the low cost of housing, and for employment opportunities.” Winchester will speak at noon today at Backcountry Winery in Stratford. Other meetings are taking place at the Jewell Golf and Country Club.
(By Pat Powers, KQWC, Webster City)