University researchers look to reinvigorate greater Minnesota

A new initiative by University Extension looks to analyze rural populations.

Max Chao

A new research initiative from the University of Minnesota aims to analyze population trends in order to reinvigorate rural Minnesota.

With a recent $500,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in tow, the ten-person, three-year project attempts to examine data that shows rural communities are growing but need to improve to thrive in the future.

Bucking a popular narrative, statistics show rural communities have increased in population by 11 percent, predominantly in the form of 30-49 year olds, since 1970. An aspect of this growth is an increasing immigrant population in rural area, said Ben Winchester, senior research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension and member of the team.

“Seventy percent of rural houses are occupied by baby boomers and older,” Winchester said. “We’re going to have turnover in small towns that we’ve rarely known before over the next 25 years.”

The project, inspired by Winchester’s research, is aiming to gather more information on these population growths and attempt to find and develop strategies for these communities to continue attracting new residents.

“It’s helping communities adjust to a new future and make it better for all,” said Kent Olson, principal investigator of the project and associate dean of the Extension Center for Community.

The most common reasons 30-49 year olds comes to rural communities is because of the slower pace of life, low crime rates, and low cost of housing, Winchester said. A trend he dubbed “brain gain.”

The study will be active in rural communities across Minnesota, like Wilmar, Worthington and Marshall, Olson said.

Winchester’s research has also spawned several community groups who aim to better attract new residents, and the team hopes to work with those groups.

In Fairmont, Minnesota, one such group, Fairmont Area Life, is planning to pair with the research team to discuss strategies specific to their community, said Margaret Dillard, president of the Fairmont Chamber of Commerce.

Fairmont Area Life plans to work with the research group as part of an advisory group of different communities, where they will discuss resident attraction strategies.

“Awareness is step number one,” Dillard said.

Researchers are currently gathering preliminary data and talking to local groups. They expect to have the first findings by the spring of 2018, he said.