What is the life expectancy of our community?

A girl smiles while eating at Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

Is there any good news about small towns? Do small towns have a future for our young people? Photo of a youngster in Eagle Butte, South Dakota via the USDA

Posted by Paula Jensen

I remember that in 1997, just after the birth of my second son, more than one elder in my community said to me:It's so sad that your kids never finish their studies at Langford High School like you did!"These comments have taught me that local leaders are questioning my decision to return to my hometown and have lost hope in their community and themselves. Well, I'm happy to say, 20 years later, that the prediction made by these people has not come true. I could talk again and again about the growth, development and pride of the community that erupted across Marshall County, South Dakota, in opposition to those terrible comments made two decades ago.

Echoing what Becky McCray said, most of my life, I was told that small towns were dying, drying up and disappearing and that there was nothing to change it. But what if, just once, there was good news about rural communities? Guess what, there is! The big trends are changing in our favor:

Trend # 1 – brain gain (kids go home after studying)

Trend 2 – changing dynamics of retail (entrepreneurship is on the rise)

Trend # 3 – New Travel Motivations (People like to go out of town to visit)

Trend 4 – decrease in the cost of distance (people can work from anywhere)

Trend n ° 5 – creation of creative places (adding quality of life equipment in our cities)

For most of my years in Marshall County, the population followed typical national patterns. In 1970, Marshall County had 5,885 people; we reached our lowest level of population in 2009 at 4,160, which represents a 30% decrease in the population of our county. However, since 2009, our county – wide population has reached 4,801 inhabitants, representing a population gain of 13%. Our trend line is on the rise and this is rare in rural areas from a national point of view. In my daily work in rural South Dakota, I have seen pockets of growth in other rural communities, much like Marshall County. The common points I see are that these unique rural places have strong leadership and care about what their little town will look like in 30 or 100 years.

I recently attended a webinar where Zachary Mannheimer was one of the invited speakers to discuss Creative Creation: Economic Development for the Next Generation, co-sponsored by the Orton Family Foundation and the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design.

What's a creative creation, ask yourself? Zachary Mannheimer defined it as follows: "Basically, it means how you enrich a community through cultural and entrepreneurial ideas."

For the most part, he explained that this had been done in urban areas, but that little had been done in rural areas. He has identified the future demographic trends that are emerging and how he sees the future of our country towards rural areas because of the growth of the urban population and the scarcity of space. Places that were once in the streets will be part of urban areas. This will happen in the next 30 years. Is your small town ready? If we are not prepared for change, we will lose our potential for economic and social growth. Leaders from rural towns and counties, economic development corporations and others need to start planning to adapt now and create the amenities that people are looking for, otherwise we will have a hard time staying in a vibrant rural community.

My riding is on the right track with new developments, entrepreneurship, strong philanthropy, growing population, strong schools, recreational opportunities, and so much more. But we must all mobilize as local leaders to support improvements and growth. Our small towns do not need to spend more time in the past. Things will never come back as before. We need to start from here and continue to move toward a bright future that offers our youth the opportunity to come back and a place where new residents want to live and contribute. Huge changes are happening in rural areas and our future has never been so bright. Let's go the distance and extend the life expectancy of our community! #Irrural

About Paula Jensen

Paula Jensen's passion for personal and professional life is her passion for community development and leadership. Paula resides in her home town of Langford, South Dakota, whose population is over 318 years old. She is a grant writer and community coach for Dakota Resources, based in Renner, South Dakota. Dakota Resources is a 501c3 community development financial institution that aims to stimulate financial and human investment in rural communities that invest in their communities. Contact her at [email protected]

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