GRANITE FALLS — Yellow Medicine County is among the rural Minnesota counties that continue to see a decline in their overall populations, but there are positive dynamics at work for them.
Some of the population loss is being made up by the arrival of new residents, and many of those newcomers are people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They are bringing families and higher earning potential to their new homes while helping the region meet its need for workers.
Neil Linscheid, University of Minnesota extension educator, told the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that the county’s participation in the Upper Minnesota Regional Development Commission’s “Get Rural” initiative is among the regional marketing approaches that are helping rural counties meet the changing demographics they are experiencing.
“Telling the story that this place exists” is increasingly important for rural Minnesota counties, according to Linscheid.
He is part of a community economics team with the University. The team is completing a three-year study that has gathered the responses of 1,700 newcomers to rural communities to identify what attracts new residents. He expects the final report may be available by June.
A regional marketing approach is important. He said that many newcomers told the team that they did not pick a specific community. More often, they came for a job in a region. Once they have decided to move to an area, they start making decisions about specific communities based on the affordability of housing, a sense of security and safety, and a desire for a slower pace of life.
Communities that are seeing success in landing the newcomers are doing more to welcome them. Communities such as Worthington and Fairmont have taken what he called a concierge approach. There are individuals in organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce ready to welcome and help newcomers find their way, and introduce them to networks and services in a community, he explained.
Some communities are reviving the old Welcome Wagon approach, but with an emphasis on person-to-person contact and not just providing a packet of coupons and the like. Some are also hosting special newcomer events, such as luncheons.
There are some broad, long-term trends influencing demographic change in rural counties, according to Linscheid. Counties offering recreational opportunities, such as the lakes in Otter Tail County, have been seeing growth.
There has also been a slow but consistent consolidation of services and people into regional centers. He cited Willmar, Marshall, Worthington and Fairmont as among the examples of regional centers that are seeing steady growth. They have also welcomed a more diverse population: A significant portion of the newcomers to the region are from diverse cultures, Linscheid told reporters after his presentation to the Board of Commissioners.
He told the commissioners that the research to date indicates that it is only going to become more difficult in the years ahead to recruit new residents to keep up with economic needs in the region. He said there are no simple, cookie cutter strategies for success, but emphasized the importance of removing barriers. “Remove the reasons it is difficult to move here,” he said.