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‘Too many tiny towns’? ‘Buy out residents’? Whoa!

‘Too many tiny towns’? ‘Buy out residents’? Whoa!

When you pick up a book titled “Landscapes of Minnesota,” you think there’s a reasonable chance it’ll be filled with pretty photos of lake shores and forests, snow-covered parks and sunsets over the prairie.

You don’t expect to find a whole region of the state essentially insulted, and told we’d be better off, literally, abandoning the small towns of southwest Minnesota because they’re no longer useful. But that’s what you get with this “Landscapes,” a book published by the venerable Minnesota Historical Society Press. It’s no coffee-table luxury, but instead a book of charts, dry academic essays and a few photos.

“Landscapes” is authored by two prize-winning geography professors at the University of Minnesota. No doubt that qualifies them to write about the science of demographics, economics and changing uses of the land that fill most of the 315 pages of the book. Those changes are obvious to most of us, especially out here in southwest Minnesota, where we have, indeed, seen population loss, school enrollment decline, changes in farming and economic strain.

A pretty big swipe
The suggestion that we give up most of life in southwest Minnesota comes on one page of that large book, and while I don’t want to be seen as overreacting to passages on just one page, what the authors wrote is pretty stinging — a damned big swipe at all of us.

I don’t question their argument on Page 296 that technological advances in farming have been dramatic. There are fewer farmers, bigger farms, and probably less need for some of the support businesses/employees that used to attend to the farm industry.

But it is with this passage on Page 296 that I threw down the book on my desk — partly in disbelief, partly, to be honest, in anger: “Southwestern Minnesota has too many tiny towns. Places that originated as agricultural service centers have lost their reason for being, and they are too small to grow. Wise public policy might buy out their residents and allow them to live elsewhere.”

Too many small towns, and they have lost their reason for being? Are the authors really serious?

If they are, they’re basically saying the region has become too inefficient to continue to operate as a place to call home. Pretty damned cold. And they’re also being condescending — allow us to live elsewhere? Gee, that’s kind of them to offer. But maybe we don’t want to, and that’s why so many of us are fighting to maintain sustainability and vitality.

Trying to keep a little objectivity, I called another small-town guy to get his take.

Reaffirmation and a guess
It was the same as I read passages from Page 296 to Tracy Mayor Stephen Ferrazzano, who also quickly figured out where the authors were from.  “Both people who live in the metro area, huh?” Ferrazzano said.

Dead-on.

I was born in a small town in Lincoln County, grew up in a small town in Lyon County and live in another small town in Lyon County today. My two sisters will soon be same-block neighbors in another small town in the county. The best hamburger I’ve ever eaten was grilled at a bar in a town not far from Marshall. One of my favorite “landscapes” is the view of Lake Benton from the hill at Hole-in-the-Mountain.

“I think there is a place for small towns,” Ferrazzano said. “I enjoy living in a small town.  I know we can’t offer all the amenities of a metro area, but I enjoy where I live. It’s disappointing to say we should shut the doors and up and leave. It’s ridiculous.”

He repeated that word a couple more times. “Ridiculous.” And I know what he means. There’s more to living in small towns than demographic efficiencies. They are safe places. They have good schools, sometimes award-winners. Rush hour in Marshall is, what, five minutes long?

I was startled the first few times my son came home from college and I went out to help bring in his dirty laundry: He’d locked the car doors.

“I had to change my habits,” he said.

Analysis doesn’t capture emotions
I know I’m countering the authors with emotion, but that’s the thing their scientific analysis lacks: The memories, the friendships, the calm, the blue skies, all the stuff that keeps many of us here. You don’t call it home because of the way an arrow on a chart points. You call it home because it feels that way.

To suggest those homes no longer have reason for being should cause a storm of letters to be sent to the Historical Society Press at the most. At the least, we should react like Ferrazzano.

“I don’t think I’m going to be buying that book,” the mayor said.

Dana Yost is the editor of the Marshall Independent. This article is reprinted from the Minnesota 2020 website.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by James Nordgaard on 02/20/2008 - 12:30 pm.

    The authors may have been harsh and untactful, but they have a valid point. I grew up and live in the city and suburbs, and have been wanting to escape them all my life, and so far have been unsuccessful; the primary reason? Economic. Perhaps I’ll succeed when I’ll retire.

    And that’s really the only possibility for these small towns; retirement communities, both for people who grew there, and urban retirees wanting the “quaint” life. There really is no other economic possibilities for them.

    The authors were probably thinking mainly in terms of public policy, and there I think they are wrong. People should be free to decide where they live. Public policy should not promote the exodus from these small towns, nor try to keep them viable. People will decide, and so will (perhaps unfortunately) economic realities.

  2. Submitted by Tom Poe on 02/21/2008 - 06:54 pm.

    I agree with Dana. Small towns that establish affordable broadband infrastructure, gain access to reasonable wholesale pricing for Internet access, and small towns become the equal of large cities for competing in a global marketplace. It’s well known that for each artist (think arts profession) that arrives in town, two to three jobs are created.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 02/22/2008 - 07:00 am.

    Years ago, many of my college friends (like myself) came from smaller towns to the Twin Cities to get our college education. Upon graduation, few of us went back because there weren’t any jobs to go back to. That trend has continued in many areas.

    Public policy has not dictated the exodus of young people from small towns–the economy has. Many small towns are crying for young persons who are doctors, pharmacists, and nurses to serve their aging population, but opportunities in most other occupations are limited.

    Competition from large retailers such as Wal-Mart or Target that have picked regional centers to locate in have often come at the expense of local retailers. Small, independent pharmacies are a prime example of this trend and more are likely to disappear.

    Transportation in some of these small towns is also a disincentive. Rail service is limited or nonexistent in many places and the expense of trucking raw materials in and finished goods out adds costs and logistical issues.

    Another sign of this change lies within the local school district. Consolidation of school districts in many of these areas has come about not only due to declining enrollments, but also the decaying of the buildings and a lack of resources to do anything about it. When school districts are forced to consolidate with other nearby school districts, a major chunk of local identity and pride is lost.

    Could a new business with a significant number of jobs relocate into these areas? Absolutely. But one or even a few new businesses are not going to be in a position to singlehandedly pay for necessary infrastructure improvements when they can just as easily expand elsewhere and not have those burdens.

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