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It was a normal Tuesday in July. Erik Osberg was on his way to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, about an hour away from where he lives, when he spotted a breathtaking sunrise during his drive. It was around 5:30 a.m. He was up early to meet a videographer at Pebble Lake golf course to film a new campaign called “#otcmoment.” OTC is short for Otter Tail County, where Osberg works as the first and only Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator. 

The videos he and his team were about to produce will be part of the county’s 2021 marketing campaign set to launch in winter or early spring. As the sun was rising, Osberg slowed down his truck onto a narrow gravel road, stepped out, and quickly snapped a shot. He uploaded the photo to Otter Tail’s social media accounts immediately upon reaching his destination, to support a county campaign called “This could be your commute.” 

This has been Osberg’s main thrust since he assumed his post in January 2017: to promote his county enough to attract tourists and, hopefully, convert them into residents.

“My job is to market Otter Tail County to the world,” he said. 

Otter Tail County, located in west central Minnesota, is home to more than 58,000 people. The county has a total area of 2,225 square miles, of which nearly 90 percent is land. But that number masks the full truth. What attracts most people is the thousands of lakes the county boasts. According to the county’s official tally, Otter Tail has 1,048 lakes. 

“If you visit a lake once a week,” Osberg said, “it would take you 20 years to see them all.”

Erik Osberg, left, with his colleague Marie Noplos (right), and Otter Tail Lakes Country Association Board member Jean Bowman at the Explore Minnesota Tourism Awards in February 2020. Both the county and the Otter Tail Lakes Country Association won awards this year. (Photo submitted) 

Beyond Otter Tail, Growing Interest in Rural Relocation

Like other rural counties, Otter Tail may be more attractive to potential residents because of the pandemic. As more densely populated areas emerged as an early breeding ground for the spread of the coronavirus, rural counties offered an attractive alternative for many living in urban areas.

A recent survey conducted by market research firm Harris Poll revealed that nearly 40% of U.S. adults living in urban areas were considering moving “out of populated areas and toward rural areas.” The firm surveyed 2,050 adults nationwide from April 25 to 27 this year and asked if they would consider moving to less-populated areas once the pandemic ends, among other Covid-19-related questions.

The survey also found that 43 percent of urban residents – higher than suburban (26 percent) and rural (21 percent) residents – reported having recently browsed real estate websites such as Zillow, Redfin, and Realtor.com for homes to rent or buy. The age range most likely to move was 18 to 34.

This phenomenon, however, was not entirely triggered by the pandemic. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington D.C., established that the growth in large cities had slowed even before the coronavirus outbreak. The analysis, written by William Frey, used Census Bureau data that documented annual population change. 

Frey highlighted how major metropolitan areas with populations more than 1 million sustained the biggest growth slowdowns, reversing the unusually large growth surge experienced by many of the country’s biggest metropolises in the early 2010s.

And when there is a slowdown in one place, there is an uptick elsewhere. Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota Extension researcher, found that from 2000 to 2010, most rural counties in Minnesota gained 30- to 49-year-olds, identified as early- to mid-career residents with significant resources and connections. Winchester has called this trend “brain gain,” which counters the more commonly cited concept of “brain drain.” He did note that only around a third of new rural residents are “returnees,” while most new rural recruits grew up elsewhere. 

Changing the Image of Rural Communities

Winchester has been traveling around the country for years giving talks to shed light on this. He wanted to rewrite the perception most people have of living in rural areas.

“Early on in my career, the narrative being used to describe our small towns did not match the positive energy I saw in rural counties,” Winchester said. “I wanted to bring respect to these people who have chosen the move.”

Upon hearing Winchester’s talk in 2016 about why people leave rural communities, and more importantly, why they move to one, Otter Tail County’s Deputy County Administrator Nicholas Leonard put the study into action. Leonard applied for multiple grants to fund a position he was envisioning—someone who could focus solely on changing the narrative of rural communities and entice more Americans to live there. He believed that promoting destination and tourism opportunities plays a crucial role in regional development as it stimulates new economic activities. 

“I remember reflecting on the data and recognizing that other areas were experiencing a more robust rebound,” Leonard said. “I knew we needed to give that naturally occurring phenomenon a boost.”

Leonard, a former professor at the University of Minnesota – Morris, was able to pull enough funds to hire someone for a two-year contract from January 2017 to 2019. To date, they have decided to keep the position even as Minnesota’s unemployment rate has more than doubled in the face of the economic stresses of the pandemic.

“Erik’s role connected the dots between broader economic development and tourism,” he said. “Erik is a really knowledgeable marketer; he really knows how to promote products and regions.”

One of Otter Tail County’s 1,684 lakes.

Osberg, a former television sports journalist who started his own media company before coming to Otter Tail County, was quick to capitalize on social media in his work. Since assuming his post, Osberg has doubled the followers of the county’s Facebook page and Twitter account and launched an Instagram account with nearly 3,000 followers. While it is difficult to track how many people have moved to the county thanks to Osberg’s efforts, his work has been acknowledged with awards

Rural Susceptibility to Covid-19

The trend of more people moving to rural areas, however, is concerning to some experts and researchers, such as David J. Peters, an associate professor of Rural Sociology at Iowa State University, who has been tracking the challenges rural areas face in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. While rural areas in early March and April seemed unscathed from the novel coronavirus, a majority of Covid-19 hotspots from recent weeks have been in non-metropolitan counties. 

Peters developed a Covid-19 susceptibility scale to assess at the county level which areas are at higher risk from the virus. His findings: Around 33 percent of rural counties are highly susceptible to Covid‐19, mainly due to an older, more health‐compromised population, including care facilities for the elderly. Peters, in his study, also cited fewer physicians, a lack of mental health services, higher rates of disability, and more uninsured people as factors that contribute to rural vulnerability. 

Otter Tail County has only had 130 confirmed cases of coronavirus and one death.

Despite this, Winchester still sees an upward trend in people moving to rural areas.

“We have definitely seen an accelerated interest in rural living,” he said. 

Although it may be too early to tell how many urban dwellers will make the move to rural areas—and when—it is clear that the pandemic will reshape the way people live, especially with remote work being normalized by a handful of major companies, particularly in the technology field. 

For Osberg, an Otter Tail advocate who did not grow up in this place, it is never too late to change one’s dream.

“I was encouraged here to move for work,” he said. “But I stayed out of choice.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Marie Noplos and Jean Bowman in the photograph. Bowman is in the center and Noplos is on the right. Also Otter Tail County has 1,048 lakes, not 1,684.