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Willmar undergoes ‘Brain gain’

Leah Schueler, left, and Hannah Abraham — both in their 20s ­— recently moved to Willmar for work. (Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)

WILLMAR — Leah Schueler grew up on the Iron Range, then moved to the Twin Cities where she spent almost a decade living and working in the inner city.

Friends questioned her decision when she and her husband traded the city scene last year for a farm near Echo in rural southwestern Minnesota.

But it’s where the couple wanted to put down roots, said Schueler, 29.

And although it has taken time, they’re getting to know their neighbors and feeling like part of the community.

“Once we get over the hurdle of building relationships, it’s easier,” she said.

Amid headlines about rural brain drain and the migration of young people to the city, rural Minnesota is seeing a quiet but steady “brain gain” of people like Schueler, a health educator for Kandiyohi and Renville County Public Health.

Harnessing this demographic is one of the goals of Vision 2040, an initiative to design the future of Kandiyohi County.

“Part of our goal is to look at newcomers,” said Linda Mathiasen, co-chairman of a Vision 2040 task force studying ways to make the Willmar lakes area more attractive to new residents.

The statistics are more favorable than you would think.

Although the overall percentage of Americans living in the rural U.S. is declining as urban and suburban regions grow, census figures show the rural population increased by actual numbers, from 53.6 million in 1970 to 59.5 million in 2010.

And although most rural counties are losing 20-somethings who are migrating to cities and suburbs, they are often making up for it by gaining people in their 30s who are moving into (or, in many cases, back to) a rural community.

For Mathiasen and her husband, Bob, living in Willmar was a choice they made not once but twice. “We liked the amenities — the retail and the restaurants,” said Bob, 43, a banker.

They moved to Willmar almost a decade ago, then a job transfer took them to Duluth. But within two years they moved back.

“This is where we felt it would be a great community to raise our children,” Bob said. He and Linda, who runs her own marketing firm and is also on the Willmar School Board, said they especially like the city’s diversity.

“It’s a diverse world and we wanted our children to grow up with that exposure,” Bob said.

Ben Winchester, a research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension, specializes in rural demographics and sociology. He was one of the first to delve into the statistics and discover that many of the facts contradict longstanding assumptions about rural viability.

“I truly believe the narrative we’ve been using to describe our small towns for the past 40 years has been horribly inaccurate,” he said.

Winchester shared many of his findings at a recent community forum hosted by Vision 2040.

The evidence, for instance, doesn’t support the notion that losing a school or hardware store leads to a small town’s demise, he said.

Americans are still choosing to live rural, he said, citing figures showing that during the 1990s, 2.2 million more people moved from cities to smaller towns than the reverse.

And rural life still resonates with many Americans, who often are in search of the lifestyle and slower pace found in small towns, Winchester said.

“We have an entire narrative built around the deficit approach,” he said. “There’s all these good things that happen that are viewed as the exception, and they’re happening every day.”

Abdullahi Olow, 32, who works at Heartland Community Action Agency and co-chairs the Vision 2040 newcomer committee along with Mathiasen, said Willmar is growing and changing as it urbanizes into a diverse regional center.

“There’s a lot to learn from one another,” he said. “With that moment of growth comes the challenge of understanding.”

His own story involved a move from Houston, Texas, five years ago. He had a choice between Willmar and Chicago and picked Willmar, figuring he would only stay for a few years.

These days, he said, he no longer thinks about moving to Chicago. “I’m here to stay.”

And that’s the crux for Vision 2040 and its efforts surrounding new arrivals, Mathiasen said. “We can bring them here but are we able to retain them?”

She and Olow said there are many issues that Vision 2040 needs to tackle. Housing is key, as the city cannot attract new residents if there’s a shortage of affordable places to live, they said.

While regional employers report increasing difficulty in bringing in skilled workers, prospective new residents say there’s often a shortage of desirable employment opportunities.

Participants at the recent “Brain Gain” forum spoke of other issues as well. Some wondered whether new arrivals feel welcomed. Others spoke of expectations that Kandiyohi County should have a lot of amenities.

For new arrivals, it can be an adjustment. Hannah Abraham, 22, started working this spring for Kandiyohi and Renville County Public Health, and she says the transition from St. Cloud, where she lived and attended college, was “definitely a huge change.”

At times she has sensed people’s reaction that “you’re not from here,” she said. “It was pretty intimidating at first.”

But she and Schueler, her co-worker, like where they have settled and are enthusiastic about contributing.

Schueler’s advice to others who are new to town: “Use a positive lens when it comes to viewing your community. Things are happening so find them. If you don’t dig in, you’ll get stuck in the negative.”

Community leaders hope to see the conversation broadened to include more people.

Having the facts is important for addressing rural demographic trends, said Harlan Madsen, a Kandiyohi County Commissioner. “We have allowed negativity or perception to govern,” he said.

Winchester told the task force they’re “well ahead of the game” in attempting to address rural population trends.

“Don’t be in a hurry. Do it right,” he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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