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Small towns brainstorming how to attract new residents to rural area

When a family or an individual thinks about moving to a region, they consider the economic incentives.

When they choose a community or a small town, they pick where they feel a sense of belonging.

Research done by the University of Minnesota Extension shows that population increases in the 1990s have zeroed out the losses of the 1970s and 80s in rural areas.

Extension coordinator Ryan Pesch presented those statistics to Horizons members of Sebeka, Menahga and Akeley Thursday at the Sebeka American Legion Club, where the groups got together to brainstorm ideas on how to attract newcomers and retain them.

"Plain and simple, there is a newcomer trend," Pesch said.

The majority of newcomers are young families, between the ages of 30 and 44, moving to rural areas for safety reasons, better schools and lower housing costs.

"Often times it's kind of the soft stuff," he said, that get people to make career transitions and move out of the big cities.

Those who plan to stay in a community for five years or longer, rate their towns as friendly and trusting, he said.

So the challenges lie with the idea of retaining the newcomers.

"This issue about belonging, I think it means a lot," Pesch said. "It basically comes down to quality of life."

Pat Allison moved to Menahga because she wanted small town living.

But it was her participation in the community that made her feel comfortable.

"Had I not got involved in Horizons and met a whole bunch of new people, I don't know what I'd be doing," Allison said.

In another category, most newcomers are retirees who either grew up here or were seasonal residents that decide to move to the area permanently, according to the trends.

But some snowbirds still can't stand Minnesota winters and don't think about moving to the area permanently.

Horizons members want to convince them that despite the cold, Minnesota has good weather.

"We have perfect weather," Allison said, adding that the state never experiences the hurricanes and earthquake disasters many southern states often have.

Park Rapids Mayor Nancy Carroll, who's also a member of the Progress Park Rapids group, said the more opportunities for seniors to get involved, the more chances for community growth.

"The arts attract people here," she said. "They're so very pleased to see there are lots of things to do."

Horizons members agree and suggested giving away membership concert tickets to those who think about leaving the area, to make them reconsider.

It's those between the ages of 18 to 25 that are the ones missing from communities like Park Rapids and Menahga.

"A community our size doesn't have a lot of opportunities for young professionals," Carroll said.

Some of the suggestions Horizons members had about attracting and retaining people to a community, including young professionals, are promoting the positives that come with small town living.

Like affordable housing and unique recreational opportunities.

The groups also suggested promoting discounted lands with ready to use water and sewer lines.

Sebeka Horizons member Ben Carlson said there are many residential properties in Sebeka that can be utilized and are affordable enough for families of all ages.

So offering low interest loans to pay for the renovations required to make those homes move-in ready is an option to attract newcomers.

"We have many good things here," Allison said. "I got connected to Menahga, I wanted small town living and I got it right here."