Staff Voices: "Rural", "Greater Minnesota", and "Far Flung Regions of the State"

The online news service, MinnPost, published an article on February 11th titled, “How the metro vs. Greater Minnesota debate is playing out in the Legislature” which was very similar to an article published by the Star Tribune in January, “Urban-rural split in Minnesota grows deeper, wider”. The MinnPost article attempts to explain the political debate and the exploitation/creation of a supposed “gap” between urban and rural areas. 

The difficulty in writing a piece that contrasts urban and rural areas is the reliance on shifting definitions. In this particular piece, the writer interchanges “metro”, “twin cities metropolitan area”, and “urban” along with interchanging “rural”, “far-flung regions of the state” and “Greater Minnesota”. This inconsistent use can cause all kinds of confusion and contradictions. For example, when providing context to a supposed “tension” between rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities metropolitan area, it goes from generalizing rural to giving more specific regions (county level);

“In state politics, there’s nothing new about tensions between rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Hard feelings between the two geographic regions have been simmering for decades, especially as demographic trends reveal the contrasts between a growing and diversifying Twin Cities and declining populations in many of Minnesota’s rural counties.”

It is difficult to know what the definition of rural is here, but due to the interchange of “Greater Minnesota” and “rural” it is safe to assume that everything outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area is considered “rural”. If that is the case, it is worth noting that from 1990 – 2000 most counties in rural Minnesota had a population gain. In fact, only 25 counties of the 80 “rural” counties (as defined in the article) lost population, which is 31% (Census Bureau).

That isn’t “many” of Minnesota’s rural counties. That number jumped to 36 counties from 2000 to 2010. However, the recession had a large impact on migration all over the state. Counties that have seen population growth over the past few decades saw far less growth during that time. In fact, Ramsey County experienced a population decline during that period (Census Bureau).

It may be that the article defines “rural” as being the counties that border North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa which is referred to as the “L” of Minnesota. Many of these counties have seen population decline since the 1970s, though these declines have flattened over the last decade, and are likely to experience population gains in the next 30 years (MN State Demographer). However, this definition doesn’t hold up further down the article when the economy is being discussed;

“The biggest problem staring lawmakers in the face is the lagging economic recovery in the far-flung regions of the state”.

Counties forming the “L” shape must not be “far-flung regions” since these counties are leading the charge on economic recovery. The Star Tribune recently published an article digging into just that: “Rural counties in Minnesota leading economic recovery”.

It could be that they’re defining “far-flung” as the northern regions of the state, such as the Iron Range. Arguments have been made that the economy in this region hasn’t recovered as quickly as the rest of the state, particularly unemployment rates. However, as Aaron Brown points out in his blog, “Minnesota Brown”, when arguing about the lagging unemployment rate on the Iron Range compared to the state average,

“I simply can’t think of a time since the taconite boom of the early ’70s where those rates wouldn’t have had some kind of gap, ranging from 30 to 100 percent.”

The point being that even before the recession, the Iron Range economy was less vibrant than other regions of the state.

A few weeks ago we posted a response to the Star Tribune article that discussed the urban-rural divide, which you can find here. Many of the arguments I posted in response to the doom-and-gloom narrative from that article can be applied here as well. The use of “far flung regions of the state” to the photograph of a grain elevator to the “us vs. them” tone all imply a generalized narrative of our rural areas that not only don’t apply, but entirely miss the diversity, opportunity, and activities happening in all of our regions. In fact, the photograph used at the top of the article (grain elevators) was taken by Nic McPhee, a Professor in Computer Science at the University of Minnesota Morris. The photograph is looking south on Pacific Ave in Morris, Minnesota. It’s ironic because that picture is meant to represent a typical rural town with a doom-and-gloom future described in so many articles and by decision makers, yet, Morris is home to

  • the University of Minnesota Morris
  • the Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance
  • two clinics and a hospital
  • the West Central Research and Outreach Center
  • two wind turbines
  • a vibrant manufacturing sector which currently has many jobs available
  • a diversified workforce that includes manufacturing, education, and health services
  • a 2% unemployment rate
  • the USDA Soils Management Research lab
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service – Morris Weltand Management District
  • a vibrant downtown retail district, and
  • an increasing Latino community that is opening shops and changing the face of the community.

As many of us who work in rural development like to say, “If you’ve been to one small town, you’ve been to one small town.” Most of our small towns and rural areas have positive aspects happening that seem to be ignored because that doesn’t fit into the imposed negative narrative.

If we really want to come up with solutions to some of the issues in rural Minnesota, we need to start using language that is not only more factually accurate, but also more geographically specific. Discussing these issues through broad, generalized regions of the state is not helpful. The challenges facing small towns are likely to be unique to certain situations just as are the opportunities. Fitting rural into a single box and contrasting it with the Twin Cities metropolitan area is unfair for all involved and is only used for political gain. The challenges in Grand Marais are going to be different than the challenges in Windom, just as the challenges in Minneapolis are going to be different than St. Paul or a suburb. Each town, township, county and region are facing unique challenges and opportunities.

Written by Kelly Asche, Program Coordinator at the Center for Small Towns

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