Rural areas seeing ‘brain gain’

Fairmont is a dying town.

Fairmont is a retirement community.

Rural areas are dying.

The kids are all leaving.

FAIRMONT – We’ve all heard these statements, but they are incorrect, according to research presented Tuesday by Bruce Schwartau, associate professor with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

“The rural area is changing, but it’s not dying,” he told a group of Fairmont residents during his presentation “Rewriting the Rural Narrative: the ‘Brain Gain’ of Rural America.”

“Since 1970, the rural population has increased by 11 percent,” he said, pointing to the ease of mobility as the reason. “Nationally, from 1990-99, 2.2 million Americans moved from city to country. Between 1995-99, 43 percent of Minnesota residents – that’s 46 percent of the households -moved.”

Of course, kids move away, Schwartau said, but they leave to go to college and establish careers, which is called a “brain drain” from the area.

Surprisingly, in Martin County between 2000-10, there was a 20 percent increase in 30- to 34-year-olds and an increase from the 35 to 50 age range.

The number of residents older than 50 declined, according to the Extension research.

“You’re not unique in Martin County,” he said.

A map of the state shows counties with colleges experienced an increase of younger people, but there was an exodus of people over the age of 35.

“We’re seeing that interchange happen between the urban communities and the rural communities,” Schwartau said.

There are three main reasons why people are relocating to rural areas.

“The No. 1 reason was a simpler way of life,” Schwartau said. “The No. 2 reason was safety. The other thing is the lower cost of housing. Having a job was not in the top 10 reasons for moving.”

Research also shows that many of the new rural residents are underemployed, but “they put so much value on the top three reasons” that it wasn’t a deterrent.

“They are generally leaving their career that they had in the city, but the quality of life is the key,” Schwartau said.

Over three-fourths of the new residents will stay for five years.

“We’ve actually got a ‘brain gain’ going on in this area,” he said. “This happened without any effort from the communities. We just finally got around to measuring it.”

Schwartau called the economic impact “significant” from the 30- to 50-year-olds moving to rural areas. Economic reasons, such as lower housing costs, might draw people to an area, but “social factors bring people to a specific town.”

“You need to provide avenues for potential residents to learn more about the area,” he said.

Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce, Fairmont Economic Development Authority and IGNITE, the Martin County EDA, which sponsored Schwartau’s appearance, are joining forces to do just that – draw attention to what the area has to offer.

About 12 years ago, there was a project called “Back Home Again,” which involved the city sending cards to Fairmont alumni.

“We had no way to measure it, and it was a one-time deal,” said Mike Humpal, Fairmont city administrator.

Twitter, Linked-In, Facebook and other social media sites didn’t exist at the time.

The city and county economic groups will be hiring a marketing professional to create a website in an effort to lure people to the area, some as returning residents and others as new residents. The focus will be on the area, not just Fairmont.

“Our overall community and economic development are regional,” Humpal said. “People travel from a seven-county area in and out of Fairmont. We have to think regional to be successful.”