There may have been less than a dozen people inside the Exhibit Hall at the Fallon County Fairgrounds Tuesday evening for the first session of a series of teleconference discussions on the changing role of rural communities, but that was expected by local organizers.
According to Beth Epley of the Eastern Plains Economic Development Corporation, that was about the number expected at the Baker meeting to listen to guest speaker Ben Winchester talk by computer from his home.
But there were more than a dozen other communities also connected for the Reimagining Rural discussion.
“This was a joint effort between Eastern Plains and Montana State Fallon and Carter County Extension,” she explained.
“It was the first one and I was hoping for anywhere from five to 15 … and it ended up about that,” Epley said.”I would love to see more, just because the more ideas we have bouncing around, the better. I was pretty pleased the people that we had. I thought they had good insights.”
Winchester was the guest speaker in the virtual series. He is a senior research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality.
Part of his presentation Tuesday was on what he calls a “brain gain” of people between the ages of 30 and 49 years old in rural areas and the social and economic opportunities that creates in the rural regions of the Midwest.
A trained rural sociologist, Winchester admits that he has been studying small towns in the Midwest for more than 20 years.
He has given a presentation on the Reimagining Rural Initiative before, to the Western Governors Association, where he addressed the governors of Oregon, North Dakota, Idaho and New Mexico who hosted workshops in their states.
Winchester stresses the need for the economic development in the rural sections of the west to help create environments that give newcomers and others a chance to start careers, pursuing new skills and have more chances to succeed and prosper.
“No rural community is immune to people moving in,” he said Tuesday.
He also said that statistically approximately 31 percent moved into rural areas for a job, while 25 percent had lived previously in that or a similar rural area. In addition, he said that according to his research about 75 percent of the people moving into rural areas have household incomes of more than $50,000 a year and that 47 percent have children in the household.
“People move all the time. The average American moves about 12 times in their lifetimes,” he said.
There also is a big transition coming soon, he added. “Seventy-five percent of rural homeowners are Baby Boomers and older. Thirty percent are 70 years old and older,” he said, noting that within the next decade or so there will be a transition to new and younger owners.
He also stressed during the teleconference the need for rural communities to also think more regionally and being able to use each nearby community’s assets.
He explained that each town needs to have certain essential services to survive and grow, but there are some things that can be spread around between the smaller communities in a region.
He also provided a few warnings, saying that the communities need to involve the newcomers and not be afraid of making some changes. “Don’t try and rebuild it the way it was,” he said. A town or community may have been dying for a reason, Winchester explained.
One successful example for communities to remember is the use of co-operatives. “Thank God for co-ops,” he said. “Co-ops are the way forward. Why that works is that they answer to their local shareholders.”
He also advised that groups don’t just grab bodies for volunteers. “Do a better job matchmaking, but you need the right volunteers,” he said, noting that the newcomers may do things a little different than the way it had been done before, but that was probably needed.
The communities “need to market to others, not just market to ourselves,” he added. “A 70 year old culture is vastly different than a 30 year old culture.”
He also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has made some major shifts and changes, but it is still too early to speculate about what the impact will be.
He did say that one of the changes has been that some jobs are no longer tied to urban areas, allowing people to work from small towns at jobs which were previously based in the big cities.
The next session of the virtual community gathering will be Sept. 29, starting at 6 p.m. in the Exhibit Hall at the Fallon County Fairgrounds in Baker.