Why I chose to live in a rural community

Published 9:11 am Thursday, May 28, 2015

Guest Column by Tim Penny

It’s undeniable that our rural towns are different than they were even one generation ago. There are a few less businesses, a few more shuttered houses. To passersby, it might appear that these places are dying, some already dead. Certainly, books like Joseph Amato’s “Decline of Rural Minnesota” (1993) and Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’ “Hollowing Out the Middle” (2010) tell the story of young people moving out, deaths outpacing births and the decline of agriculture as a primary economic engine.

Tim Penny

Tim Penny

However, there is another narrative, one that’s more nuanced, and also more hopeful, for those of us who call rural Minnesota home. Much of this new story is being shaped by the  research of Ben Winchester through the University of Minnesota Extension. His research points to an overlooked demographic trend: while it’s true that some age cohorts are leaving for urban areas and that small towns are being impacted by the national decrease in birthrate, there is a cohort of people who are choosing to move back. This cohort, specifically those aged 30 to 44, are seeking a simpler pace of life, better quality schools for their children and a  lower cost of living. They comprise a highly-educated, wealthier cohort compared to those populations leaving (primarily ages 18 to 25), leading Winchester to flip the narrative and coin this phenomenon as “rural brain gain.”

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In early June, I’ll be attending a gathering of all six Minnesota Initiative Foundations, along with other researchers and practitioners interested in this “returning” cohort. While the rural brain gain findings are encouraging, research also shows that people are likely to migrate again around their mid-40s to early-50s. At the June MIF meeting, my MIF colleagues and I want to identify opportunities to engage these newcomers longer-term while opening more doors for those thinking about leaving urban life behind. One component of this upcoming session will be a time to reflect on why the current leaders of our organizations — myself included — have chosen to stay and invest in our rural communities.

My decision to stay in rural Minnesota boils down to the fact that this is where my roots are. My great-great grandfather homesteaded in rural Freeborn County, northwest of Albert Lea in 1862. Originally, our family lived and farmed on the shore of Penny Lake and continued farming in rural Freeborn county for the following three generations.

Inspired by my roots, as a young man, I aspired to serve rural Minnesota. I was fortunate to do so for six years in the state Senate and 12 years in Washington, D.C. While I felt honored to serve southern Minnesota in Washington, I always knew that I would return home so my kids would be able to have their roots here, as well. Today, I am fortunate to continue to serve this 20-county region as president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Through SMIF grants, loans and various programs, we are helping our area’s communities remain viable for a new generation.

So, beyond roots, here are the top five reasons I chose rural:

1. Rural values resonate with me. These values include respect for our natural resources, commitment to community, neighborliness and pride in our traditions.

2. I enjoy open space and the lack of congestion. I have heard it said that “you know you are in a rural community when you do not have to put on your blinker because everyone knows where you are going.”

3. I celebrate the fact that — for the most part — rural community schools are small enough to provide every student personal attention and an opportunity to succeed.

4. I am comforted that community services are delivered by people I personally know and trust. I appreciate that the mayor and other local officials are both neighbors and friends. I like it that local businesses are run by people with whom I socialize and go to church.

5. Finally, I love that many of our community needs are addressed by neighbors working together in collaboration and partnership and not inhibited by partisan agendas or political gamesmanship. In rural Minnesota, we largely live by the John Deere creed: “Get ‘er done!”

To me, leading a foundation — SMIF — that is all about rural is very much an “affair of the heart.” As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215. We’d love hear why you either stuck around, came back or relocated to a more rural setting for the first time. Tweet #ruralbychoice to @Tim_Penny.


Tim Penny is the president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.