Mark Anderson

What makes our small towns worth living in?

Small town diet

The people are coming. There’s a projection of hundreds of new jobs in Staples over the next few years. For small towns, sudden economic growth is like the goose that laid the golden egg: it is an enviable windfall, but major issues can develop along with it.

I attended two presentations of “Rewriting the Rural Narrative” recently, the program spurred by the University of Minnesota Morris’ Center for Small Towns, one by Kelly Ashe and one by Merritt Bussiere. They both had good suggestions for how Staples can handle the upcoming growth.

Both presenters said that rural communities already are growing because they have what people are looking for, namely the small town lifestyle. People are moving from the Twin Cities and from Chicago to rural Minnesota, for cheap housing, social services or just a chance to live a more relaxed life. Jobs are not a deciding factor for most of them. So like I said, the people are coming.

This rural relocation doesn’t necessarily mean it will help the people who are already living in Staples. With growth, your property taxes could decline slightly, but that won’t be a big deal for most of us.

The real change could be with social opportunities, organizations and how we spend our time in the community. Both rural narrative presenters said new people are less likely to join traditional community organizations, but want special interest groups such as a writers club, shooting club or bicycle club. Those types of clubs tend to be regional, not local and are organized through social media.

Bussiere suggested hosting a newcomers supper or a nonprofit summit. Staples did have two newcomers events, but I think our biggest opportunity is hosting all kinds of special interest summits. I like the word “summit” because it implies just one meeting but if people are energized by it they can continue whatever grows out of it.

The concept is something I have been talking about in Staples for many years. Although we are doing some great things here, there still is a need to apply it to the community in a public forum. We have a great music tradition, we need to hold a music summit to make it even greater. With our college, K-12 schools and a need for community learning, we could easily hold an education summit. Lakewood Health System’s new Choose Health program is a great opportunity for a healthy living summit. We don’t have a movie theater, how about a film summit or festival?

Other ideas: a manufacturing summit, downtown summit, recreation summit, hunting summit, (fill in your own interest here) ... The point is to open up the things we already do to the community and give people an opportunity to connect.

Small towns are uniquely situated to be able to connect people in that manner, and that is part of what makes a small town worth living in.

Housing and business

Rewriting the Rural Narrative talks a lot about housing. There are two opposing predictions about housing in the next decade. Some people see the population rising and predict we will need to build more. The other prediction is that Baby Boomers will retire, move to smaller homes or to their lake homes and the housing issue will take care of itself.

What we do know from communities that do have jobs available, housing is a major issue. A few years ago, they started busing workers into Perham. One rumor at the rural narrative gathering is that Perham businesses are now hiring Ukrainian workers and other immigrants to meet their need.

I have lived in a community where immigrants came in to work and it caused some growing pains, but in less than one generation, they became a respected part of the community, their kids did well in school and they helped repopulate the downtown businesses. Staples has been isolated from diversity despite being a crossroads town. We don’t have enough workers to meet the projection so we need to embrace the possiblity of our population changing.

Growth can also provide business opportunities that no one had thought of before. Ashe brought up a new business in Wilmar where they bought an old building and turned it into office spaces for rent. Their business model is some people come in for a day or a week or several months. or rent the meeting room for an hour.

New people, especially immigrants and the newly retired, tend to be much more entrepreneurial than people who have always lived and worked in an area. With growth, those new people could help fill some of the downtown buildings.

Those types of specialty businesses might not be able to make it in an urban area, but it is possible for small town people to work together and make it happen. That’s another reason small towns are worth living in.

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