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‘Too many people flee’: A dispatch from New Ulm

In between the major segments of our ongoing Rural Minnesota: Generation at the Crossroads series, we are posting interim pieces by or about young people we meet around the state. We connected with Bob Martens, 24, through Twitter. He used our online form (Are you under 25 and living in Minnesota? We have some questions for you) to tell us a little bit about his decision to stay with his family in New Ulm, where he works for Martin Luther College and runs his own web development company, deck78. He blogs about life and technology at Working Passively.

I work as the webmaster/technician for Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minn., where I was born and raised. I attended St. Paul’s Lutheran School, Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School and Martin Luther College, where I received my Bachelor of Science degree in education in 2009. I married my wife, Laura, in 2006 at the church where my parents were married. I lived on the our family farm for the first 20 years of my life. Now I live seven minutes from that same farm with my wife, son Jamis, and another child on the way.

Bob Martens and son
Courtesy of Bob Martens
Bob Martens and son

I love the town and the lifestyle. While life in a rural community can seem quirky to many, it just seems more grounded to me. Too many people flee these areas, especially those that many see as the “smart, college-educated” people.

We had moved to Milwaukee, where I worked as a “Genius” at an Apple Store, but we moved back after only four months. It was not the life we wanted to live.

I appreciate the green spaces that are all around the city and the opportunities that you have to take a step back and enjoy your family. The standard of living is very high, the people are great, and housing prices are still very low compared to years ago. We would not have been able to buy our house if we hadn’t moved back to a rural city.

Communities like ours could do more to encourage young entrepreneurs to stick it out and build. Providing low-cost office space or co-working facilities, along with programs to get them started, would be a step in the right direction.

I hope that we can get some younger people into positions of power in the city to start pushing for some changes, but would that be what is wanted? The city itself is relatively old and the people are as well, so I’m just guessing that New Ulm will get smaller over time unless something changes soon.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Lauren Hebert on 06/01/2011 - 11:08 am.

    Too many people flee? A True statement… But economics isn’t the only reason. Many educated and/or creative entrepreneurs leave or locate elsewhere due to a percieved lack of cultural openness & tolerance. If Greater MN wants a chance to thrive again, there will have to be an effort to address this perception.

  2. Submitted by Mark Stromseth on 06/01/2011 - 11:18 am.

    While it’s true that a lot of younger people think there’s no future for them in a small, rural town, that’s a matter of perception, not reality.

    I grew up in a small town, and I went to school with someone who now lives in New Ulm. I don’t regret still living in the same town I grew up in for a moment. While there may be more job opportunities in the metro are and their suburbs, I hate the traffic and the feeling that everyone is in a constant rush; they just can’t slow down long enough to relax. That’s why I continue to live at least an hour away from all of that.

    Commuting isn’t fun, but the ability to get away from all of that rushing around, along with inflated home prices and the higher crime rate is worth it.

    If you can establish yourself in a profession where you can work from home, or have an employer that will let you do that, it will be great for you. More companies are embracing work-at-home programs and even flexible schedules, so as we become more wired, with faster Internet connections, those opportunities should continue to grow.

  3. Submitted by Bob Martens on 06/01/2011 - 03:02 pm.

    Thanks for the comment Lauren, but what you brought up is another self-fulfilling prophesy. If you expect things to happen, but then everyone who wants those things move away what do people expect?

    People aren’t going to kick that perception unless they stay in an area and work. It isn’t always fun, it isn’t always glamourous, but it is needed work and we risk losing A LOT of culture and “good things” if we just let our small cities die because of perception or some misguided idea of what we need to do.

    Thanks to everyone for reading!

  4. Submitted by David Greene on 06/01/2011 - 05:40 pm.

    My Mom grew up on the family farm in New Ulm and I have fond memories of family gatherings there. She left because at the time the opportunities for women were nonexistent. While I assume that has changed for the better, the fact remains that one has vastly more resources, cultural experiences, unique opportunities and new ideas in urban areas. It’s the network effect. I’m not sure rural areas SHOULD strive to provide all that. They provide a different set of amenities cities cannot.

    I completely understand Bob’s desire to stay in New Ulm. It’s fantastic he’s created his own opportunities there. That’s what has to happen.

    That said, I shudder at the strain Mark is putting on our systems and society. An hour commute is not only expensive for Mark, it’s expensive for all of us. It means we have to maintain more and wider freeways with all of their associated costs, employers have to deal with a commuting workforce and so on. While Mark is certainly free to live this way, it is not without cost and those costs have not been accounted for in our public policy.

    Living near work, telecommuting or using public transit is much more beneficial to health and well-being than living in a rural paradise and commuting two hours each day.

  5. Submitted by Robert Saxton on 06/01/2011 - 06:31 pm.

    We spent five years in a fairly small town (Wadena, pop. 4,200) before moving to a much larger one (Bemidji). My observation is this: all it takes is few go-getters with energy to make a small town interesting and full of vitality. To that end – we’re sending you three of our best, New Ulm! Best of luck to John, Brooke and Emily. Bemidji will miss them dearly.

  6. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/02/2011 - 04:24 pm.

    I have to agree with David about the hour long commute. It seems ironic to live an hour from work and say it’s to avoid the traffic. Where does that traffic come from? It isn’t just the number of people. The other reason for heavy traffic is on average, we live further and further from work. When we try to move away from density while commuting back to it, we just spread it further. David is right about the costs of roads. For all the controversy about the costs of mass transit systems, we forget that roads are very expensive for taxpayers too. The fact we buy our own gas doesn’t mean we pay our own way. We just pretend we do.

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