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America’s metropolitan areas continue to grow while small towns in rural areas are shrinking and, in many cases, struggling to survive. Three small towns in Minnesota are bucking that trend.
Litchfield, Mora and Pine City are the only three cities located outside a metropolitan area in the Gopher State to have never lost population throughout their respective and storied histories. Reasons why, while debatable, might come as a surprise.
Many rural cities across the state—from Ortonville to Olivia—have shown three straight decades of population loss due to aging populations and, primarily, urbanization; today, more than 7 in 10 Minnesotans lives in an urban area. Dwindling rural populations are part of a national trend.
Over the course of time, Litchfield, Mora and Pine City chose rather than to wilt away, to be resilient and adapt. For each, the result has been a continued renaissance of sorts. Since incorporating, their respective population counts have risen every 10 years. True, other larger Minnesota cities can make the claim—such as St. Cloud and Rochester, as well as many suburbs and a few regional centers known by demographers as “micropolitan” areas—but no other rural communities can. (Micropolitan counties are located outside a metro area and have a city with a population of 10,000 to 49,999.)
“There are probably a variety of factors at play,” explained James Hibbs, of the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Yet, Litchfield, Mora and Pine City have commonalities sure to have played a significant role in their continued growth.
Locations. “Proximity to the Twin Cities is certainly one explanation,” suggested Hibbs. After all, it always comes down to location. All are within 70 miles of Minneapolis in separate directions. Luke Greiner, Regional Analyst Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, also pointed out, “All have solid highway access,” whereby Litchfield is west of the Twin Cities on US Highway 12; Mora, north on State Highway 65; and Pine City, northeast on Interstate 35.
Perhaps they aren’t growing on their own without their connection to the larger urban core (Minneapolis-St. Paul). Perhaps it’s because each offers a rural quality of life with easy access to nature while at the same time easy access to amenities of the Twin Cities. Pine City Mayor Carl Pederson agrees, figuring that some move to his community “to escape the urban life to something more relaxing.”
Government centers. Another explanation could be each is a center of government. “All three cities are county seats, which may be a good source of economic stability or growth,” noted Hibbs. Litchfield is the seat of Meeker County; Mora, Kanabec County; and Pine City, Pine County. The county populations have grown throughout most of the period, although the 2016 population estimates (which have a margin of error) seem to indicate that growth is leveling off.
According to Greiner, being a county seat is “less causal for growth now than in the past, and not all county seats have fared so well.” Nonetheless, these towns are reaping the benefits of the corresponding jobs and each brings in daily commuters who spend part of their paychecks in the local economies. Also, the government sector tends to be countercyclical, meaning that when the private sector is struggling the county serves as an important, stable employer, particularly in light of a small town’s exposure to economic fluctuations.
Mora Mayor Jack L’Heureux explained it this way: “Government jobs with benefits are very stable and desired in our rural community.” He pointed to Mora’s diverse economic mix of agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and service industries. “We do not have a boom or bust industry that can devastate a community when things go south.”
Strong schools, low costs of living. It doesn’t hurt there exists strong education systems with relatively lower costs of living. Roughly, a salary of $50,000 in any of the three cities would have to be over $54,000 in the Twin Cities to go as far. The biggest difference: housing costs. Each of their schools hasn’t consolidated like other rural schools, and remains named after their respective communities.
Moreover, each town is seeing a good number of “returners” who left, learned vital skills, then returned to their hometown with a mind to give back. An example is Nick Olson, a former Pine City High School grad who left, learned the craft brewing trade and returned to open Three Twenty Brewing Co., the first brewery in the region for over a century.
Job growth. While two-thirds of rural counties in the U.S. lost jobs from 2007 to 2017, the three counties these cities are capitols of saw job growth, including during the recession from December 2007 to June 2009. Pine County gained 1,823 jobs; Kanabec, 1,357; and Meeker, 1,209. Job growth continued through last year. From January 2017 to January 2018, Pine County added 469 jobs; Meeker, 335; and Kanabec, 307.
Thanks to communities that are welcoming and adapting to change, these jobs are in a variety of sectors. According to Pederson, “If we chose not to embrace change for the future, our community will fade into the darkness of the night.” True for Pine City, Litchfield, Mora and any rural community, really.
Nathan Johnson writes about cities and people, and he has been nationally recognized as an “Outstanding Small Town and Rural Planner.”