Opportunity in Rural America - In the Eye of the Beholder

Opportunity in Rural America - In the Eye of the Beholder

When I left for college, I was sure that was the last time I would call my small town my home. I seeked opportunity elsewhere, thinking my path would never lead me back to my humble water tower town. I loved where I grew up, I just did not see the thrill in returning to my roots.

Much of that same sentiment continues to echo among young people across the United States.

Between 2010 and 2016, rural areas saw their first period of population decline, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS). The ERS also found that long term population loss continued in counties dependent on agriculture, mainly in the Great Plains, Midwest and Southern Coastal Plains. Notable news sources, such as the Wall Street Journal, claim rural America is the new “Inner City,” meaning the job opportunities remain limited and crime rates are on the rise. The outlook is grim for rural communities.

Because of this, many young people seek opportunities in metro areas. In effect, rural populations decline and small town economies suffer. Local businesses face closure, leaving vacant buildings in a once thriving, historic downtown.

I have seen the effects of this population shift take its toll on my own hometown. Stores, restaurants and other businesses struggle to maintain business. Restaurant owners reach retirement age and cannot recruit a successor because the opportunity is not appealing to many young people.

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Opportunity, though, exists wherever it is allowed to bloom. A vacant building may portray hopelessness, but opportunity thinks differently.

A conversation with Jonathan Jank, the President and CEO of my hometown’s Chamber & Development Partnership, changed my own perspective on the opportunity presented by a small town way of life. Jank leads a career aimed at recruiting new businesses to my home county. Large and small, local and corporate, the prospective businesses the partnership seeks out are meant to complement the existing ones but also create healthy competition.

Jank said the main tool to encourage businesses to come to small towns is the rural quality of life. Part of the benefit of starting a business in a rural community is the inexpensive property prices.

“The cost of real estate is much more reasonable here than in cities,” Jank said. “We may not offer the same amenities as large downtowns, but that’s one thing we can offer.”

Jank also spoke to what I love about small towns, and that is the tight-knit community.

“Our town is one that allows a parent to let the kids roam, they will get fed by somebody, and they will be back by sundown,” Jank said. “You don’t get that kind of community everywhere.”

Teamwork and optimism remain as guiding principles for the partnership as it seeks to grow the opportunities they see as already existing in my hometown.

“We operate on the thought that we can all grow together,” Jank said. “We want the businesses to think ‘I want to benefit your business because it will benefit mine’ and then recruit new ones who want to pivot towards this ‘together’ mindset. We have a lot to offer, and we want to grow what we already have.”

I am thankful for forward-thinking individuals in my hometown who see the value in rural life and all that it has to offer. My hometown is more than simply a place to reside, but rather a community to be a part of. Even though it has fallen on tough times recently, there’s a sense of optimism that exists in the wake of closing businesses.

There is opportunity in small town America. You just need the vision to see it.

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