You’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories. Rural America is losing the battle of survival to an increasingly urbanized America, dominated by densely populated cities and suburbs. Young adults and families are moving away to find jobs, education, and medical care that can’t be matched in their hometowns.
Yet this dark version of rural America is misleading and dated. Rural America today has never been more appealing or offered more promise. America has awakened in the time of COVID to the reality of working remotely from virtually anywhere. Many can work where they want to live, not live where they must find work. Between 14 million and 23 million Americans intend to relocate to a different city or region as a result of telework, according to a recently released study by Upwork.
The pandemic has only accelerated a trend toward rural in-migration that research has shown was already under way. Researchers at the University of Minnesota Center for Community Vitality have documented a “brain gain” in parts of Minnesota, a trend toward rural migration led by a demographic that boasts younger adults and families with relatively higher levels of education and job skills. People move for many reasons. What is evolving is the changing priorities around rural migration. Quality of life, proximity to family, less congestion, perceived safety and security, lower cost of living, and more tightly knit communities are all factors that have been shown to be more important than jobs to new residents in deciding to migrate to rural towns.
In fact, in rural America, jobs often follow people. New residents may bring them, or they may create them. In addition to the capacity to work remotely, new residents bring with them unique entrepreneurial, social, and other skills that equip them to succeed economically and to extend that success to others in the community by building and growing small businesses. These businesses are diversified and sustainable, capable of withstanding the push and pull of world markets and providing a living wage to owners and workers alike.
Well positioned to grow
Research has also shown that communities in close proximity to natural amenities are especially well positioned to maintain and grow their population and economies. A Headwaters Economics study found that between 2010 and 2016, the average “non-recreation county” lost 20 people per 1,000 residents due to out-migration, while the average “recreation county” gained more than one person per 1,000 residents. Households moving into recreation counties had, on average, significantly higher income and earnings potential than in non-recreation counties.
Tourism flourishes in these recreational, amenity-rich communities, driving direct and indirect sustainable economic development. Importantly, tourism is the first step toward a relationship between visitor and community that, research shows, will attract them not only to future visits, but ultimately relocation to the community to live, learn, work or retire.
Ely, Minnesota, the home base of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, is among the Arrowhead communities fortunate to bear witness to these positive trends. Ely is a principal gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), America’s most visited wilderness and home to an iconic and unmatched canoe country of lakes, rivers, and forests free of roads, structures, motors, aircraft, or other man-made intrusions on nature. Our area enjoys a “human amenity index,” as measured by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (heath care access, innovation, recreation areas, restaurants and scenic amenities), that is higher than 90 percent of other Minnesota counties. The population of Ely and surrounding townships has held relatively steady and its diversified economy has proved resilient. Tourism and recreation are economic cornerstones, complemented by small-batch, high quality manufacturing businesses, government, health care and service industries. Arts, attractions, nonprofits, and schools thrive alongside businesses, to make Ely one of America’s most highly ranked small towns.
An unprecedented demand for real estate
The summer of 2020 brought an unprecedented demand for real estate. A survey of Arrowhead realtors conducted by the IRRRB in the fall indicated this demand to be not only local, but “out-of-region” including the Twin Cities, Rochester, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Buyers include a larger percentage of younger people with a strong orientation toward lakes, wilderness, hunting, and fishing. Realtors reported the region’s growing reputation for outdoor recreation, especially proximity to the BWCA, was a key driver.
The same IRRRB study found the two biggest barriers to attracting additional in-migration were lack of broadband access and the threat of copper mining to the wilderness. Both are issues we can do something about, and our government leaders should. To these two issues I would also add a third, which is the need for more affordable housing. Although oftentimes this is viewed as a problem for just the metro, it is a significant issue in rural Minnesota as well. Like the other two, this is a solvable problem.
People are economic engines we must value. Surrounded by a unique wilderness, the Superior National Forest and other natural amenities, Ely and other Arrowhead towns are well positioned to exploit positive rural in-migration trends by focusing on attracting new residents. Viable pathways exist to resident recruitment in our region. We must take them.
David Miller resides in the Ely area and is the treasurer, a director and member of the executive committee of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, a nonprofit dedicated to protection of public lands and wilderness, especially the BWCA, and chair of its Economic and Community Development Task Force.