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Literature in a Hurry: Opportunities for rural are available in Morris

I was on vacation last week, visiting friends and sightseeing in New York City. It was a lot of fun, and a strong reminder of while the city can be fun to visit, I really don’t want to live there.

On every trip, large or small, I always have a moment when I just know that it’s time to go home.

In this case, I went to see a Broadway show – The Realistic Joneses – with a couple of friends on Friday night. We walked out of the theater at about 9:30 p.m., right into the sensory overload that is Times Square.

Walking in New York City can be an assault on personal space during a quiet afternoon. The sense of claustrophobia coupled with neon flashing lights in Times Square on a Friday night is impossible to describe.

The moment I knew I needed to get out of the city came as we were walking to the subway station to catch a train home. The Incredible Hulk – really, a man dressed in a badly-done Hulk costume – stepped in front of me and tried to give me a hug. And not just a friendly hug. A hug that would have cost me $5 if I hung out with him long enough to snap a photo.

I don’t want costly (or even free) hugs from the Incredible Hulk.

I know that there are people who thrive in busy cities. But I also know that I will never be one of them, and I know more and more people who are making those same decisions.

It was perhaps fortuitous that my first week back from vacation included the Center for Small Town’s annual Symposium on Small Towns. The theme this year – Understanding Rural Migration: Myths, Trends and Opportunities Exposed – was particularly apt, given the ongoing conversations within our community about population, jobs and maintaining our quality of life into the future.

Although the keynote speeches were a little statistics-heavy for my post-vacation brain, I came away from my time at the symposium with plenty of food for thought.

In the opening keynote, Ben Winchester, former CST employee and current research fellow with University of Minnesota Extension, argued that we need to battle against the narrative of rural decline – “Rural is changing, not dying.”

Since the 1970s, the actual number of people living in rural America has increased. This increase, however, often gets masked by the fact that the overall percentage of Americans living in rural areas has declined. But this decline in percent may be partially because areas that were formerly rural – Blue Earth County, for example – are now considered urban.

One interesting trend that is often missed is that there are a growing number of people in their 30s and 40s returning or moving to rural areas.

“We cannot continue to portray rural successes as exceptions,” said Winchester. “If we change the backdrop behind rural to be something positive, the successes are the everyday and then we can move forward. … We have to rewrite the narrative because it’s just not accurate.”

Dave Peters, a reporter with MPR News, summed up Winchester’s key opportunities for rural communities this way: “attracting immigrants, hanging on to retiring baby boomers and appealing to millennials in need of affordable housing.”

Peters goes on to summarize, “Rural boomers want townhomes and condos and apartments just like urban counterparts. If those desires aren't satisfied, they'll move and take their Social Security payments out of the community. Those federal transfer payments amount to a fifth of the income in many rural communities, Winchester said, far surpassing the importance of agriculture.

“And related to the boomers' housing needs is an opportunity to appeal to the millennial generation. Winchester thinks housing will become more available in rural areas as boomers move, providing in turn affordable housing for young people priced out of the urban market.”

These are all opportunities that Morris and Stevens County are well situated to take advantage of, if we collectively decide to do so.

Local businesses are bringing new people to our community every day. Are we making them feel welcome enough that they’ll want to stay?

I know a growing group of young people – myself among them – who are coming to Morris for employment and personal opportunities. Does the rhetoric about “renters” help those people feel part of our community?

We have major pieces of undeveloped property in our community. Are we making sure they’ll be developed in a way that provides the amenities that new community members want and need?

I want to say that the answers to all of those questions are a resounding yes, but I’m not confident that is true all of the time.

It is important that we as rural advocates not fall victim to the narrative the rural is dying. The things we all love about living in small towns are the very features that will bring new people and help us thrive going forward.