Are Our Small Rural Towns Functionally Dead?

Jack M. Geller

A few years ago I found myself making a presentation to a group of rural and agricultural leaders when I was asked a question about a much thought of, but seldom mentioned topic. After citing the history of a specific small town of approximately 200 residents, with the loss of most of its main street businesses, closure of the local school and loss of the local grain elevator, he stated his question by concluding, “Let’s face it, this town is dead! But is anyone going to ever say it out loud?”

Putting the dramatic effect aside, with well over 350 of Minnesota’s more than 853 incorporated cities and towns having 500 or fewer residents, it’s a question we should really spend much more time discussing. After all, more than 80,000 Minnesotans live in such places. And it’s true — many of these small rural communities have dramatically changed over the past 40-50 years, with significant losses to main street businesses, loss of job-producing industries, closure and consolidation of local schools and significant population losses. But are these small communities functionally dead as the questioner believed? Well, from my perspective the answer lies with your definition of community.

Clearly, if you define “community” as a place with a somewhat autonomous micro-economy and evaluate its vitality based upon job-creation, sales tax receipts and population growth, then yes, many of these small towns are functionally dead. But I prefer a different definition and evaluation of community. I prefer the definition proposed by State Economist Tom Stinson and State Demographer Tom Gillaspy in the winter 2006 issue of the Rural Minnesota Journal. Essentially, Stinson and Gillaspy view such small towns not as micro-economic units, but rather as spatially separated neighborhoods. And when you think about it, viewing our small rural communities as neighborhoods makes an enormous amount of sense. After all, what is a neighborhood other than a cluster of residences where people live, build social networks and collectively define their quality of life.

Yes, it is true that there are only a few jobs or commercial enterprises there, and most of the workforce residing in these rural “neighborhoods” rises each morning only to drive to work in some other nearby or sometimes distant community. But so what? Isn’t that equally true for many residents in metro-area neighborhoods as well? Have you ever watched the commuting patterns throughout the metro each morning? The important point is that each evening residents return to their respective neighborhoods (both rural and urban), because that’s where they choose to live, raise their families and feel connected to fellow residents in their neighborhood.

Accepting small rural communities as residentially oriented neighborhoods rather than economically oriented entities has significant implications for rural development efforts as well. Just think of all the resources expended in efforts trying to breathe life back into the local economy of these small rural places: whether it be developing industrial parks, business recruitment, or other economic development efforts, we have to admit that in most instances the results are seldom worth the effort. But by accepting these small rural places as neighborhoods, we can shift our focus from economic development to community development, where improving the quality of life for its residents is the goal. This may mean holding community conversations about parks, community arts and theater, the needs of local youth and senior citizens, and determining what activities are most important to meet the needs of local residents.

Finally, viewing your small rural community as a residentially oriented neighborhood allows you to no longer view neighboring communities and regional centers as economic competitors. So when a neighboring community acquires a new restaurant, movie theater or industry, you can view it as another regional amenity or employment opportunity that improves the quality of life for residents in your neighborhood, rather than viewing such occurrences as the business that should have located in our town!

So in the end my answer to the questioner was rather simple and straightforward. No, I do not believe that many of these small rural towns are dead or destined to die. Rather, I believe that the ultimate fate of these towns will depend less and less on their local efforts to revive the local economy and more and more on their efforts to build a collective quality of life that connects local residents to place. Simply put, communities that successfully create a quality of life that connects residents and establishes a collective sense of place will ultimately help ensure that others will find their “neighborhood” as attractive as they do.

(Jack M. Geller serves as president of the St. Peter-based Center for Rural Policy & Development. He can be reached at