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How to Stop the Shrink

Rural American communities have been shrinking in population for decades. It’s not just the alure of the city with shiny lights and activities that have caused the slide. For those same decades, we’ve been telling our youth that there are few job opportunities in our communities and that the real opportunities are somewhere else, and you must go away to find them. For the most part, our youth have bought the story and left our communities while we sit around tables in community meetings trying to figure out what has happened to our youth and ways to bring them back. Fortunately for us, big cities and big city leaders are doing their part to reverse the trend. Many big cities aren’t shiny, and some are even dangerous. We’re seeing more and more of our youth returning to our area after finding that big city life did not turn out to be as satisfying as they thought it would be.

2020 Census: Is the Shrink all its cranked up to be?

The 2020 census paints a dire picture for our county and area, showing drastic declines in population. I’m not sure the census results paint a totally accurate picture. No doubt, there are serious implications of lower census numbers in terms of the way congressional districts are defined and the amount of federal funding returning to our area.

Gathering data for an accurate census, every ten years as specified in the constitution, has always been a challenge. Last year was worse than ever. We were in the very worst part of the pandemic when it was time to collect data. There were all manner of advertising and public relations campaigns urging people to respond to the census, but in the confusion of it all, I have to believe we missed a lot of people, exacerbating the shrinking problem.

Also, I don’t believe there’s any way, from the once-every-ten-years data, to tell whether the shrinking is as bad today as it was at the beginning of this last period in 2010. We don’t know if we’re still on a downward trend or if we bottomed out and are maintaining or perhaps growing again. 

People are moving into our area, and they range in age from young professional families to retired people looking for an escape from the hub bub, crime, and politics of the big city. I spoke with a real estate agent a couple of months ago with 15 properties scheduled for closing. Real estate in our area is hot right now.

Stopping the Shrink

Area politicians are talking a lot about the shrink. They will have to deal with it in the form of drawing new state congressional districts. Some of them talk about what the government can do to help stop the shrink, but really, other than trying to provide a business-friendly environment, the government is not going to be able to do much to stop the shrink.

Attorney General, Derek Schmidt, visited one of my classes years ago when he was a state senator. He said at the time he didn’t think the communities in our county, and state, had done enough to be great places to live. I think his point was that we were spending too much time, effort and money trying to attract white-knight industry to come to our towns while not having enough housing inventory and local business.

Keep Doing What We’re Doing

Since the AG’s class visit, things have changed, for the better. We have strong chambers, main street, reawakening and community betterment groups working to improve our communities. We have a stronger retail business presence than I can remember in the twenty years I’ve been in the area. Many local businesses are growing and despite challenges, several businesses I know are having record years and a few even had record years last year during the pandemic. We have lots of entertainment opportunities and there are efforts underway to alleviate our housing shortages. Continuing these efforts will go a long way to stopping the shrink.

A Couple of Things to Add

In addition, there are a couple of things we can do more of. First, we all need to issue open invitations to our family members who live elsewhere to return, especially those that may want to start a business. Second, we need to change the message to our youth and quit telling them that their opportunities for a successful future are all somewhere else. There are opportunities right here in this area, especially to start businesses filling in the local market gaps.

In recent history, there has never been so much dissatisfaction by so many city dwellers across the United States in the conditions of their cities and their disability to continue living there. Many, fed up with big city crime and other problems are ready to try life in smaller, rural communities. If we keep doing what we’re doing, invite our family members to return and change the message to our youth, we have a shot at attracting more people to come, or stay, and live in our small corner of the Midwest.

Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at www.fablabicc.org.



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