Counties with more small, locally owned businesses have faster growing incomes than those places with big box stores and large firms owned by those outside the community. Here is a picture of the main street in Red Lodge, Montana.

There are many things we don’t talk about. Some are too personal and would embarrass. Some are too painful to even think about and we fill our minds with thoughts that hurt less. The abandonment of a childhood home to the weather and eventual destruction is a painful thought. The place that was filled with laughter, music and warmth, now cold like a corpse.

A school, once full of bubbly children laughing and learning, now abandoned with books strewn on the floor and pigeons flying through broken windows. Trophy cases still filled with testaments to the heroic athletes that stirred the souls of community fans to ecstasy.

Bill Patrie

Or the death of a county newspaper. Telling the story of the community for 100 years, through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the deaths of presidents, and the marriages and deaths of community members. The county paper celebrated the seasons with fall festivals, implement dealers’ new tractors, and car dealers’ new cars, still undercover, with a great revealing that fascinated teenage boys.

Or the death of the grocery store. The place where you knew everyone and wished them a Merry Christmas as you bought the holiday ham and the Christmas tree. The place where you knew where everything was and knew when the next order was coming in on the truck. The grocery store owner knew you and all of your kids by name.

The loss of rural places isn’t mourned by those who never knew they existed. It is questioned by those who honestly ask, “Why would anyone want to live in that place?” Love for rural places is mocked by those who shroud themselves in the iron laws of economics and adopt a brutal cynicism that protects them from ever feeling hurt again. Burn the old buildings they say, it is the cheapest way to get rid of them.

Shared vision is a powerful force whether it is positive or negative. What a rural community believes about its future really matters. It affects the value of your home and if your grandkids will live near you. It affects what rural people think about, but not what they talk about. They do not talk about the kind of community they want. Instead they talk about who is to blame for the kind of community they have. The conversations often include the difference between boomers and millennials, what is wrong with the people who are not from here, the impacts of technology, the failings of government, and what strategies work best to survive commodity prices. Rural people often adopt the philosophy that they need a strong leader to save them and they cannot save themselves.

A positive vision for the future of rural places is built on the foundation of what is valuable about rural places and worth saving. That discussion isn’t taking place. It is silenced by leaders who don’t want the conversation to occur because they don’t know how to save rural places. They don’t want the blame for people moving away. They are probably planning on moving themselves.

Rural communities will be saved by the people who want to live there. They were created by people who wanted to live there. Rural communities were created by people hoping to become business owners, land owners or employees of a good company. There are more people in need of those same opportunities than at any time since World War II. If they are welcomed to rural places, they will fill the schools, run the grocery stores and publish the county paper. Are they welcome?

Bill Patrie is from North Dakota and has been recognized for his work as a cooperative developer by the National Farmers Union, the Association of Cooperative Educators and the National Cooperative Business Association.This article first appeared in the Bismark Tribune.

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