We’ve Faced Tough Topics For Decades

 “Minnesota’s small towns are in decline. It’s hard, but we must talk about it.” Headlines like this always make us curious to find out what metropolitan dailies are saying about us.

Minneapolis Star Tribune business columnist Evan Ramstad wrote the piece about how, outside the area surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul, the state’s small towns are seeing a population decline. But the word “decline” has a deeper meaning.

With our lost population, many other forms of decline take root. We lose our main streets. School class sizes fall, classes are cut, and school districts consolidate. There is a general, depressing sense of loss that pervades the rural mindset.

Ramstad writes that over the next decade, “50 of the state’s 87 counties are expected to lose population.” He adds, “In many Minnesota places, slow growth turned into outright decline in the last 20 years.”

These falling population predictions in rural Minnesota are nothing new. We’ve been dealing with the consequence of it for decades. They have been the subject of numerous articles, too many rural community meetings to count, and stacks of reports for plans for progress.

“In Minnesota outside the Twin Cities, the leveling-out or decline of population and economic growth is acute — and uncomfortable to bring up,” Ramstad writes.

In search of these uncomfortable conversations, Ramstad traveled to Grand Rapids, home of the Blandin Foundation. Blandin is the largest philanthropic organization outside the Twin Cities. It has invested millions of dollars in helping rural communities with planning, strategy and innovation sessions, and the education of local leaders.

“Blandin Foundation stands with rural Minnesota communities as they design and claim ambitious, vibrant futures,” it says. “Our mission is to connect, fund, and advocate for ideas and people to inspire resourcefulness and move rural places forward.”

At Blandin’s headquarters, Ramstad met with Executive Director Tuleah Palmer. “Resource scarcity, and how often this scarcity is showing up, is crippling,” she told him. “It’s contrary to, I think, what has been a historic independent pride in rural culture. So it’s hard to articulate, and it’s a little bit risky to do it,” she adds. “But we want to help make visible what is invisible.”

At this point, we are still trying to figure out what is so difficult to talk about.

“Often, the biggest, toughest problems are difficult to discuss,” Ramstad writes. “I found myself feeling sheepish, and worried about being impolite, on a recent trip through northern Minnesota when I asked questions about this dynamic.”

Palmer told him that rural communities have been facing population decline and its impacts for a long time. However, now something has changed. She grew up in the Grand Rapids area and knows small towns.

“Things feel different than when we were kids,” she told Ramstad. “There’s a tension around asking ‘What is going on?’ It’s sort of contrary to the culture to say, ‘There’s something wrong.’” Our tough rural self-reliance culture is apparently behind this unease with asking questions.

We find this strange in that we’ve sat through a fair number of community introspection meetings where local leaders dove into the subjects troubling their businesses and residents. Participants were frank, and honest in their assessments. 

Again, what is behind our unease?

Palmer tells Ramstad that people are becoming worried about where they will get healthcare in 20 years in rural Minnesota. 

We’ve written about local hospitals being bought by regional chains. We’ve written about the increasing concern about staffing at nursing homes, the staffing of emergency medical services as the current staff retires, and finding medical providers for our rural clinics.

This definitely is an area where we could see growing unease.

“One of the main tensions in Minnesota is that the growth trajectory of the metro area is upward while for most of the rest of the state, it’s downward,” Ramstad writes. We can understand this as well.

When the official 2020 Census figures were released in 2021, they showed Minnesota’s population at 5,706,494. The seven-county metropolitan area growing the fastest. Those seven counties account for more than 56% of the state’s population in its 87 counties.

Hennepin and Scott, the homes to Minneapolis and St. Paul, have a population larger than the 75 counties that rank 13 through 87.

With the population growth in the metro area far outpacing rural Minnesota, and with some counties losing population, the seven-county metropolitan area picked up more state legislative seats. Increasingly, rural Minnesota is losing its influence at the state Capitol.

The fact that rural Minnesota’s legislative delegation is nearly entirely Republican, and the metro area is controlled by Democrats who have majorities in the House and Senate, our rural voice is further diminished. This is definitely a source of unease.

Rural Minnesotans also see themselves as unappreciated suppliers of the needs of those in the metro areas. We’ve always been their source of food. Now they want us to be their source of clean energy. Rural land is where the windmills are being raised. It is where the solar collector fields are being planted. Are we being exploited? Some may apparently think so.

Our culture is different in rural Minnesota. We are less diverse, not as mobile, and our population sparser. “That inevitably shifts cultural norms and even what change looks like in rural places,” Palmer said.

In conclusion, Ramsand writes, “I view the leaders of Minnesota’s small-town businesses and institutions as today’s pioneers. They are managing the questions and hard choices of flattening and decline before many people in the Twin Cities, or cities anywhere in the U.S., even understand what’s going on.”

Change is coming with technology’s rapid acceleration and the evolution of artificial intelligence with its expected deep impact on future jobs.

While more change is coming, rural Minnesotans have been studying their options, making plans for growth, and pursuing their futures. We certainly aren’t afraid to bring up and address tough questions. We have been doing that for decades.