Bridge failures, floods, tornadoes and other disasters are crises that are easy to identify. We see the news helicopters flying overhead. Minnesota must come to terms with a crisis unfolding across much of the state that will not attract the attention of the news choppers. This crisis is not threatening metro communities like Minneapolis or Eden Prairie. Nor is it closing in on regional centers such as Rochester, Mankato, St. Cloud and Moorhead, or popular lake districts like those around Alexandria or Brainerd.
The crisis is gripping the vast majority of Minnesota's smallest cities and counties, which are slowly withering and dying on the vine.
To get a real feel for the crisis, take a long drive across Minnesota on rural highways such as U.S. 75, U.S. 212, MN 9 or MN 30. Make sure to tour small cities like Benson, Olivia, Tracy and Montevideo. Stop in smaller cities like Balaton, Ada, Hallock and Wheaton and have a cup of coffee. Take a moment to stop in some really small cities, like Echo, Holloway and Euclid. Don't expect to find a cup of coffee here. Most of the small-town coffee shops and cafes have disappeared.
In fact, what you may notice first in these communities is the number of empty storefronts and blank spaces on Main Street. The hardware store is gone. Maybe one cafe and one bar will still be open. The grocery store is out on the highway now and sells gas. In the smallest cities and towns, don't expect to find a medical clinic or a dentist's or a lawyer's office.
Thrift and secondhand stores are fairly common, and many of the smaller towns have nursing homes and assisted-living facilities that look new or have recent additions spreading from an original building. Housing throughout the city looks a little ragged, and you'll see empty lots where a house used to stand. Other houses are abandoned and are close to falling down. On the edge of town, a newer home may have been built, but you won't see a subdivision. You will probably find an old school building. If it's in use, the name on the school will incorporate the county or region or multiple nearby cities. If it is not open, it may have found another use, but in too many cases it stands empty.
A look at the demographic trends in these rural communities is sobering. In more than 20 of Minnesota's most rural counties, population peaked before the 1940 census. In the last 25 years, the population of Minnesota's 25 smallest counties has shrunk by nearly 13 percent — a reduction of almost 30,000 people, like having a city the size of Roseville disappear.
If you look deeper into the census data, you will see that the median age of the population in these rural counties is 44 to 49 years old, whereas counties like Hennepin and Ramsey have median ages of 35. In Wright County (Buffalo), more than 30 percent of the population is under 18, while less than 21 percent is under 18 in Big Stone County (Ortonville). In Traverse County (Wheaton), it is estimated that there will be eight births or less for each 1,000 inhabitants next year — or fewer than 30 births in the entire county. Scott County can expect 15 births per thousand — 38 births per week. The death rate per thousand in Scott County is less than four. In Traverse County, it is over 19.
Statistics on housing and poverty tell the same story about the need to respond to the rural crisis. In Lac qui Parle County (Madison), 49 percent of the houses were built before 1940. Compare that with Washington County, where less than 9 percent of the housing is that old. The median value of a home in Redwood County (Redwood Falls), is about $70,000, while a median value home in Hennepin County is worth $219,000. Almost 15 percent of the elderly and 15 percent of children live in poverty in Traverse County, twice the level of Dakota County (and about the same as Hennepin).
What you won't see on your drive, or in the data, are the crumbling water and wastewater systems in most of these cities, all the roads in need of asphalt, or the lists of seniors waiting to move into assisted living and long-term-care facilities. You won't see the number of miles that children are being bused as school district after school district attempts to assemble the critical mass of pupils necessary to keep the schools functioning. You won't see the high school graduates who are leaving for new lives in the big city.
Not everything in rural Minnesota is gloom and doom. As you drive between cities, check out some of the farmsites, with their beautiful homes and outbuildings. Watch out for farm equipment being moved from field to field. A look at the statistics will tell you that the average income per capita is nearly the same or even higher than in more urban counties. This anomaly was created by the high prices for commodities the last few years.
Your trip will give you a better understanding of the crisis facing rural Minnesota and the need for rural leaders to develop a comprehensive agenda to meet the challenge.
The first step is for rural leaders to rethink "community." Communities cannot be defined using current city limits and county boundaries. We must see rural communities as broad geographic areas that work together, knowing that creating new jobs will benefit everyone within the area. Leaders must inventory the assets of these new communities, such as water and wastewater resources, fire services and police services.
Having defined these new communities, look to do four things:
• Play economic-development small-ball by working with local manufacturers and businesses to help them expand, adding one, two or five jobs at a time.
• Ask the Legislature to enact a Rural Community Renewal Program that includes grants to small communities to improve the housing stock, to buy buildings that can be used as grocery cooperatives, to expand senior facilities to meet the growing need, and to establish a summer jobs program that hires teens to work in these communities to clean empty lots, paint houses and refresh the parks.
• Make changes in the K-12 funding formula to finance learning models that use the best educational techniques from home and charter schooling; that use televideo technology and partnerships with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the University of Minnesota to bring introductory and advanced courses to high-schoolers, and that focus on how to meet the students' needs while reducing their windshield time on buses.
• Invest in traditional transportation infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railroads but also in ultra-high-speed broadband infrastructure that can create new business opportunities and access to broadcast culture and sports.
Rural leaders must create a vision for rural Minnesota that focuses on where we are going and not where we have been. Rural Minnesota is rich with an abundance of water; the most productive farmland in the world; clean air; safe communities, and really good people.
I grew up in Renville, Minn. If the governor and state leaders believe that our state should invest over $100 million in zoos, convention centers and the Nicollet Mall, I know we can find a way to invest in Renville, Trimont, Hallock and Nicollet. They are Minnesota, too.