Visit Madison, Minnesota and you’ll be welcomed by Lou T. Fisk, a gigantic, 35-year old fibreglass cod. Lou is one of many outsized, kitschy mascots adorning small rural towns in the midwestern US state — local figureheads which carry the story of the place and the history of its inhabitants.
Lou and his like have always been tourist attractions, and Minnesota’s towns are good at pulling in visitors. Many advertise local festivals, outdoor activities and the area’s natural beauty, for instance. But this approach has been less good at convincing people that these towns and villages are places they would want to live and work in.
As rural areas around the world are struggling to retain their young people — since 1960, the world’s urban population has grown almost four times faster than the rural population — Minnesota’s villages are no exceptions. But now, a team of rural development specialists are trying to turn these tourist visits into something more lasting.
“In our area and in many rural places across the nation, population loss has been a trend for over 50 years,” said Dawn Hegland, executive director of the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission (UMVRDC). This is particularly the case for young people, who leave the towns they grew up in for education and job opportunities in the city.
But Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota, made a crucial discovery. Looking at census data from 2010, Winchester discovered that although young people in their twenties were moving out of Minnesota’s rural towns, in almost all of them, people in their thirties and forties were actually moving in.
Sensing an opportunity, UMVRDC worked with Winchester to uncover why this was happening. After surveying realtors and newcomers, they discovered that the common motivations were a desire to leave the stress and bustle of the city for small community life. People who had established their careers in the city were tiring of its bustle, and the rural towns, with their natural beauty and better quality of life, were seen as a viable alternative.
Now, with a “newcomer attraction campaign” called Get Rural, Hegland and her team are presenting Minnesota as a place for people to make their home, rather than just travel. “If we really want to attract people to our region to live and to work and have families, they need to know a lot more than just what you can do when you’re not at work,” said Hegland.
“We have to be able to replace people”
Acting as an orchestrator and marketer, UMVRDC works with towns to collect together the information potential newcomers need to assess the towns as a place to live, and uses marketing techniques to sell them. UMVRDC has filmed videos advertising the town, curated a DropBox with photos for the towns to use on their own websites and launched a website where all the information can be found.
“There was a lot of information that we knew existed in a variety of other places that we’ve pulled together,” said Hegland. “That’s always a work in progress because information is always changing — we’re kind of the goat herder, trying to collect all of the goats in one place.”
So far it seems to be working. The strategy’s success will ultimately reveal itself in the long term. “We have to be able to replace people,” said Hegland. As people age or leave, the communities need young blood to survive — UMVRDC aims to be proactive in finding people and convincing them that Minnesota’s towns are the place for them to put down roots.
Because of the towns’ small size, there’s no standard way to get the work done. Hegland and her team will work with whomever has the resources and the willingness to help — public servants, elected officials, business leaders and people in non-governmental organisations. The point is to coordinate all parties to help get the necessary information in one place.
“If we don’t proactively try to talk about the opportunities that are here, and provide information to make it easy for people to make the choice to be here, nobody else is going to do it.”
Get Rural Minnesota presents content such as videos and blogs of what community life is like in Minnesota’s towns. This ranges from an interview with a young mother in the town of Benson, to a tool which allows potential immigrants to calculate the cost of living in one of the Upper Minnesota valley’s communities.
The area also benefits from some excellent broadband connections. Thanks to the work of the Blandin Foundation, who also provided funding to UMVRDC’s rural recruitment efforts, rural towns in Minnesota have been able to convince internet providers that they are viable and profitable places to provide connections to. Many of the people the towns try to attract need good internet connections to run their businesses, or to “telecommute”.
Minnesota’s rural towns have long histories. Madison’s Lou T. Fisk himself refers to “lutefisk”, cod preserved in lye, a local dish based on a recipe brought to the town by Scandinavian immigrants. But to keep lutefisk on the menu, there have to be people to eat it — Get Rural Minnesota might be the means to bring them in. — Anoush Darabi
(Picture credit: Flickr/Jimmy Emerson, DVM