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A photo of a building along a small town road.

Small towns, generally identified as having a population under 5,000, make up 85 percent of Minnesota's cities.

Small towns, big changes

The Center for Small Towns applies University resources to rural priorities

By Gayla Marty

Published on May 28, 2004

If you think small towns are those fast-fading places where everybody knows everyone else and nobody locks their doors, you've been watching too much TV.

Small towns are not fading away. A lot of people who live in them are newcomers, and the locks are definitely working.

"Rural Communities Adapting to a New Century"
Morris, Minnesota
June 8-9

Part of the University of Minnesota President's 21st Century Interdisciplinary Conference Series

U of M, Morris, will host the second annual symposium on small towns, cosponsored by the Center for Small Towns and the Minnesota Association of Small Cities.

--A community showcase will feature projects such as Glenwood's new fairgrounds and horse-show facility, Hoffman's historic public school renovation, and Dassel's innovative senior-care facility.

--Six Minnesota legislators will participate in an Almanac-styled forum.

--Representatives of community and rural development agencies will work with participants to explore and develop projects.

--The touring Barn Again! Smithsonian exhibit will be displayed.

--Mandolinist-fiddler Peter Ostroushko and guitarist Arkady Yushin will celebrate rural life.

Four out of five people in Minnesota live in cities and towns and 85 percent of Minnesota's cities are small towns, generally defined as having a population under 5,000. "We've witnessed massive growth in rural areas," says Ben Winchester of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris. "For 20 of the past 30 years, people have been choosing to live in rural areas at a higher rate than urban areas."

The misperception of the dying small town undoubtedly comes from those rural areas that depend on agriculture, which have suffered. But other parts of rural Minnesota--especially recreational and retirement counties--are doing incredibly well. In the United States, the largest number of people ever--5.4 million--have chosen to move to rural areas between 1990 and 2000. "Rural is not in decline anymore," says Winchester. "But idyllic ideas [about rural living] tend to overshadow some of the challenges these areas face."

Winchester is fascinated with rural rebound, and that is what the Center for Small Towns--soon to celebrate its tenth year--is all about. Every year, about 25 University students work on projects with small towns and rural groups, teaming up with the center's staff members or affiliated faculty members.

Among the projects this year are efforts to help a small town decide whether to turn a vacant building into an assisted-living home and working with a west central Minnesota group to form a health care purchasing alliance.

"Right now there are a lot of economic pressures on small towns," says Mark Ritter, associate director of programs for the non-profit Midwest Assistance Project (MAP), and a small-town native himself. "There are pros and cons for development in these places and the center has a role in helping small towns plan for change, and for [helping] policymakers," says Ritter. "It's no longer ag policy, but rural policy."

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