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Rural growth catches Time’s attention

Brief by Central Staff

Media – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

After years of decline, rural towns are growing again, and the national media are starting to take notice. The issue was featured in the Dec. 8 edition of the Washington Post National Weekly Edition, and on the cover of the Dec. 8 Time.

The Time article observes that “A new kind of `white flight’ is going on in America today, but unlike the middle-class exodus from multi-ethnic cities to the suburbs a generation ago, this middle-class migration is from crowded, predominately white suburbs to small towns and rural counties. Rural America has enjoyed a net inflow of 2 million Americans this decade… In the 1980s, by contrast, rural areas suffered a net loss of 1.4 million people.”

Time headlines its piece, “Americans are fleeing suburbia for small towns. Do their new lives equal their dreams?”

The answer isn’t so simple, but the ex-urbanites living in small towns seem to be adjusting. Or perhaps, as the article points out, it would be more accurate to say that the small towns are adjusting.

After six years in Wilmington, Ohio, population 13,000, one women still can’t get over the dismay she felt upon learning the local grocery store had neither arugula nor a reasonable pasta selection, but with so many newcomers moving in, the place is apparently improving. Many of the newcomers are also working diligently to improve the schools. Of course, some long-time residents aren’t too happy with the changes.

But as it turns out, some newcomers aren’t real happy with the changes either. In Wilmington, where there’s not only population growth but also a lot of high-tech firms moving in, the felony crime rate has nearly doubled in the past five years. They’ve got huge traffic problems, and increasing drug problems, and more juvenile crime than they once did.

For Wilmington, the turnaround began when Airborne Express, an overnight shipping company, built its national hub on the outskirts of town, and now neighboring farmers are also having a problem with water contamination caused by Airborne’s use of de-icers.

Today, nobody in Wilmington is quite as happy as they expected to be just a few years back.

But for all of those who stay, for better or worse, Wilmington is home. And now, no matter where they’re from, they’re fighting about future developments.

The article in The Washington Post concentrated on the northern Great Plains, where rural counties in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota are growing after losing population for decades.

Most of this growth, has come because “Manufacturers have flocked to small rural areas in droves since the 1980s,” and “the biggest problem facing the Northern Plains is that employers have run out of workers. The labor shortage is acute.”

Both articles concentrated on the emigrĂ©s rather than their destinations, with the Post observing that “The influx of newcomers … is changing this sleepy, intimate town where for years everyone knew his or her neighbor, and, quite often, where that neighbor was last night. Few people complain, though.”

Towns need new blood; the question is how much can a place absorb, and how quickly, before it quits being a peaceful, rural retreat, and becomes yet another suburb.