The Power of Proximity
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.

By far, the greatest demographic shift in our state’s history has been the out-migration of residents from rural Minnesota to the Twin Cities metro. This shift, which has occurred primarily since the 1950s and which greatly accelerated in the past 25 years, has had a profound and undeniable impact on the Minnesota economy, our political climate and yes, our culture. We are now a metro-oriented state, with 59 percent of our residents living in the Twin Cities metro, 12 percent living in other out-state metropolitan communities (e.g., Rochester, Duluth or St. Cloud), and only 29 percent of Minnesota residents living in what we generally think of as rural Minnesota.

However, if you look closely at this demographic shift, you realize that the growth throughout the Twin Cities metro has been anything but uniform. While we now see growth in the core cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul with the rapid development of downtown residential lofts and condos, the reality is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, for many years the core cities actually lost residents, or at best had their population hold steady, while the outer ring suburbs and exurbs witnessed explosive growth. Simply put, while employment growth was strong in the core, population growth was explosive at the periphery.

Recently there has been a great deal of attention given to what demographers call “micropolitan” communities, a term used by the U.S. Census Bureau to designate communities in non-metro counties with populations between 10,000 and 49,999. These micropolitan communities exist in significant numbers throughout rural Minnesota and are generally thought of as our seats of commerce, employment, entertainment and culture. Communities such as Marshall, Mankato, Owatonna, Alexandria and Brainerd are all good examples of such communities.

Given the continued growth and development of these micropolitan communities, a reasonable question might be whether a similar benefit can be found among the small rural communities that are at the periphery of these micropolitan communities the same way the suburbs and exurbs benefit from their proximity to Minneapolis and St. Paul? And in fact, the simple answer is yes. According to a soon-to-be-published study by Gustavus Adolphus geography professor Mark Bjelland, a remarkably similar pattern emerges for many of these micropolitan communities. For example, around Mankato (where Bjelland lives), he finds that while the micropolitan community of Mankato itself has witnessed population growth of around 8 percent over the past six years, the smaller surrounding communities of St. Peter, Lake Crystal, Madison Lake and Eagle Lake have all experienced growth rates between 5 percent and 17 percent! (The city of St. Clair was the lone exception, actually losing population over those years.) Not surprisingly, the one difference Bjelland found is that while this periphery effect may comprise a 50-mile radius in the Twin Cities metro, the effect for these micropolitan communities may not be much greater than 20-25 miles.

So what can we learn from these demographic trends? Well, at a minimum it speaks to the importance of treating rural economic development as a regional game, recognizing that job growth in one community can have an even greater “spillover” effect for its considerably smaller neighboring towns. These smaller communities should not be viewing their larger neighbors with envy, but rather they should be working together for the economic and demographic benefit of the region as a whole.

And what if you live in a small rural town outside of the periphery of a micropolitan community? Well, it’s all the more reason to embrace the neighboring communities you do have and work together to build your collective future.