Is Rural America Dying? Brain Gain, Economic Impact Analysis and Strategies

Part 6 of Brain Gain, Rewriting the Rural Narrative by Ben Winchester, U of M

By Marijo Vik


Have new comers matched up with a community mentor for the first year, provide shuttle type service to metro or larger communities.


“Keep sprucing up the town, polish it up. Make it that attractive town you want it to be.”


“The website, oh gosh that makes me overwhelmed. That’s the first thing that I do, I mean when I’m going anywhere, I Google it. You know, that’s my generation, that’s what I do. But the websites in this region need an over haul something that captures people’s attention that they can navigate quickly and easily and have that marketing appeal.”


“I guess I would just say be open to change, tradition is so strong but be open to exploring. It’s not all doom and gloom, the new things that are happening.”


“When you go to college you are there for five years, a couple of degrees later, I thought that I had to be in the metro to stay in my field, to grow in a career, you know, and it turns out that’s not the case. I don’t have to be there and I can still support myself and I can still have a life.”


“But the housing is just not available. And I’ve heard that several times from several people is that there’s just not the really nice houses. I think for even for us we considered building when we moved here just simply because we couldn’t find anything that was really nice and that we would want to live in for the rest of our lives.”


“I can think of a couple [business] places in town that aren’t for sale, but if you went up and asked and made the right offer, it would be for sale. Or there are some that have been on the market for a long time and are looking for someone from the city to start a business out here, they are just looking to retire.”


“You need to promote the telecommuting option because you are not going to bring the big cat companies, but there is so much telecommuting going on that if you can find the ones that want to move here and telecommute they’ll bring in good jobs.”


“I think one of the things too is the city of Dawson has to find somebody for these telecommuters that they can actually go back and do some teleconferencing and video conferencing.”

“Even like, you know, we live across from school, and now the boys are seven not six they can go across the street to the playground and play by themselves as long as there is no big kids over there. But I mean, I could not ever allow that in Omaha.”

“You couldn’t let your kids out of your sight.”

“No, not at all.”


“How about housing? My gosh, houses you can buy for less that a new car out here.”


“Another thing we talked about was better internet too out here.”

“If we get that it would be huge.”

“Oh, we need a new website. The website is absolutely from 1980.”


[person 1] “We have a state park within 15 minutes.”

[person 2] “They have great trails and great. I mean they are so much fun things to do.”

[person 1] “That needs to be promoted more.”


“One thing that springs to my mind is that not a lot of homes are for sale and I realize to buy a home you probably need a job in the area or something to do in your home, but I often wonder if the community actually reaches out to more populated areas to try to recruit people to come into the smaller communities where the office buildings may be more affordable.”


“I think a draw for people is the landscape of the area and if we focus on outdoor activities that tend to occur in this area could draw a whole adventurous crew of people. You know, like if you go up North like Grand Marais has all those people looking for adventures people living in that community and I think you really could draw that, too. With the right advertising.”


“When we moved to town the only reason I knew about the chamber or their welcome basket was because I called the chamber to get a list of rentals and they said, ‘Oh hey, by the way, if you move to town make sure you stop by and pick up your welcome thingy.’ And I don’t know how you get that information for those welcome baskets, but that was really cool. But I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. That was kind of cool and it got me out to different places to see what it was.”


The following comments are from Toby Spanier, the focus group facilitator:

“Well there have been a couple of stories that have been told, as I said, in other focus groups where somebody had a position in the metro area and they could just as easily work here as there and eventually when they made the change there was some skepticism by the company they work with that they would be productive and work, so the person started off part time. But after only a few months the corporation or the company realized that yeah, this person can actually be more productive. The costs for having that person were much cheaper to have that person in their room than to have that person taking up office space in the metro. The person who told the story asked the corporation and they said, ‘Well how do I get 15 other people to kind of move out to your community?’”


“The typical new growth is probably in two areas, one would be persons of color and the other would be people that are fed up with traffic on I-494.”

Economic Impact Analysis

In 2009, an economic impact analysis (EIA) was completed by Brigid Tuck with the University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Community Vitality. 


The key findings from this study indicate:

     In focus groups of 52 “newcomer” households in the five-county region, 24 (or 46%) reported household incomes of $75,000 or greater in 2009.

     The newcomers reported total household incomes of $3.7 million in 2009.

     Due to the spending of this income, an additional $1.7 million in economic output was created in the five-county region in 2009.

     This included 16 additional jobs and $433,000 in labor income. Because of the 52 newcomer households, 16 other households received income at an average of $27,000 per household.

     For every 3 “newcomer” households, 1 existing household potentially receives $27,000 in new income.

     In total, the 52 “newcomer” households created $132,000 in state and local tax collections in 2009.


This study focuses on the spending of household income by newcomers to the region. Clearly, newcomers create economic impacts in ways other than their household income. For example, newcomers may start a new business. The spending by the new business would also generate economic impacts. In fact, 12 of the 52 respondents indicate they operate a farm and/or business. 

However, the data collected by the survey did not provide enough detail to model these impacts.


The children of these families most likely will attend public schools, impacting school funding.  These scenarios are not included in this study. Therefore, the results of this study should be considered a conservative estimation of the economic impact of newcomers in the region.



Strategies fall into three categories. The first category focuses on individual newcomers to support efforts that put the region “on the map” and allow potential newcomers to find out more about the region as they begin actively pursuing housing and employment solutions. 


The second category encompasses economic activities related to self-employment, telecommuting, and identifying emerging clusters of skills that are being created by the newcomers. 


The third category identifies community and economic supports for newcomers after they move to the region.


“On the Map” Strategies

Strategy: Provide avenues for potential newcomers to learn more about the region.

This strategy can provide a big challenge as the infrastructure is not entirely in place. Need to integrate the information infrastructure of regional partners - not only to the residents, but between themselves and the sources of information.


While there are tremendous assets, such as the natural amenities and FTTH broadband, it can be difficult for those outside the region to find out about them.


Recruitment is not about tourism, it’s about supporting those that are at a life-changing point in their life – pulling up roots and moving them to the prairie-waters part of the state. New residents are looking for information about jobs, businesses for sale, available properties, and opportunities for children to be involved in school.


Existing residents are also a source of information that is “fed” to potential newcomers.  However, existing resident knowledge tends to be sporadic and local. Avenues for existing residents to refer potential newcomers to the regional recruitment team should be sought.


There has been significant fragmentation in media. No longer are there just a few sources of information and news about a community. Websites, social media outlets, and other forms of electronic media provide multiple windows into a community. There are some sources of conversation on the internet, such as the Reimagine Rural blog that can provide some insight on successful social media strategies in these residential attraction efforts. 


Another source is the work of Becky McCray at the Small Biz Survival blog who notes: “Putting people in your pictures gives  you instant social proof. It draws your potential visitor into      the story.”


Really, this story needs to be told, and told by those who have made the move. This would provide the tie between retention and recruitment. Individual towns in the region indicate that they need help with their website and other promotional efforts. Should the regional recruitment group develop an information portal such as this, it is recommended that there are links to this site on all community websites in the region. 


There are imagery issues as well. One of the overall values that the group has witnessed has been one of self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and a general return to the “frontier” life both economically and socially.


Strategy:  Provide a resource that allows potential newcomers to establish a personal connection to the region. 

The movement of newcomers to the region over the past 20 years has occurred without a concerted effort by those in the region to attract or recruit them. This effort is described as a one-stop-shop whereby interested parties can identify their skills, interests, and motivations while the regional recruitment collaborative can provide them with a type of “matching service” based on their profile. 


One group in Nebraska has built upon the findings of Nebraska newcomers to market the community in this way. There are a few examples of regional efforts geared toward those looking to their respective regions: Norfolk Area Recruiters ( Wayne Works (