A study commissioned by the Blandin Foundation and released last month found that while the national and Minnesota economies have improved in recent years, rural residents still list economic factors as top concerns.

Last commissioned in 2013, Rural Pulse aims to gather input from leaders in rural communities around the state. 

“Rural Pulse provides a snapshot every few years of how rural Minnesotans perceive their communities and the issues they consider of greatest importance,” the foundation noted in a prepared statement.

The survey gathered opinions through 1,144 telephone interviews. Respondents, in both the Northeast Minnesota and statewide, identified economic issues as top priorities.  Growing local job opportunities and growing new business were the No. 1 and No. 2 concerns for both groups. 

Statewide survey responses were more optimistic than those from Northeast residents. While 66 percent of Northeast respondents viewed their community as a vibrant place to live and work, 69 percent statewide reported that view. Numbers for both groups were down, however, from 2013 survey results. That year, 71 percent of Northeast residents and 75 percent of statewide participants viewed their community as vibrant.

A similar decline was recorded among respondents to the question of whether their community is strong and resilient. In 2013, 84 percent of both statewide and Northeast survey participants viewed their community as strong. By 2016, those figures dropped to 70 percent in the Northeast and 73 percent statewide.

When gauging opinion specifically about economic opportunity, Northeast residents also responded less positively than their statewide peers. In response to the question regarding their community successfully maintaining and growing job opportunities, 53 percent in the Northeast agreed or strongly agreed, compared with 66 percent overall.

Northeastern participants also responded far less favorably to the question of whether the community did a sufficient job attracting new business. While 52 percent responded positively statewide, only 41 percent agreed in the Northeast.

Pessimism on the part of both Northeast and other rural residents is likely founded in reality.

Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a Sept. 2016 analysis by the Daily Yonder, a publication of the Center for Rural Strategies, noted that nearly all nationwide job growth since 2010 has been in metropolitan areas with populations of 250,000 or more. Article authors Bill Bishop and Tim Marema further found that while metro areas experienced 5.6 percent job growth when compared with pre-recession figures, rural communities with fewer than 20,000 residents experienced a 5 percent decline in jobs during the same period.

Categorized from one to nine, with one being the highest density population, urban counties added 4.5 million jobs since 2008, Bishop and Marema found. In contrast, all other county categories had fewer jobs in 2015 than in 2008.

“The economy is becoming more citified,” wrote the authors. “Businesses are finding it increasingly valuable to locate in larger cities, where they have access to large labor pools, the latest technology, a wide array of suppliers and the knowledge that transfers from face-to-face meetings among people. Young workers have filled city centers, and employers have chased them, moving offices to the downtowns of the largest urban regions.”

Foundation executives point to other data, which also supports the survey’s findings. Numbers from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development showed that 84 percent of July’s job gain in the state took place in the Twin Cities metro area.

“Rural places are rich with possibility – abundant natural resources, optimistic and committed leaders, quality of life,” Dr. Kathleen Annette, president and CEO for Blandin Foundation, said in a news release.  “Nearly half of our state’s population lives in rural places, and Rural Pulse results remind us that economic recovery is not yet reaching all Minnesotans.  We must press on if we want to be a state that is resilient, healthy and vibrant.”

Bill Blazer, senior vice president of public affairs and business development for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, noted that some of the stunted rural growth in this state is likely linked to low iron ore prices, reduced demand for forest products and low commodity prices for soybeans and corn.

“Greater Minnesota has been hit harder (with economic forces) than the Twin Cities due to its higher dependence on natural resources,” he said. 

The good news

Nonetheless, Rural Pulse respondents did find bright spots. Overall, 31 percent of rural survey participants felt their local economy had improved over the last year. That’s a nine-point gain from the 2013 survey and a 13-point gain from 2010.

Blazer noted that diversification has improved the outlook for rural parts of the state. He pointed to call centers such as Chisholm’s Delta Reservation Center and the United Health Group facility in International Falls as examples.

The Rural Pulse survey also found a slight increase in rural household incomes. About one-third of respondents said their income had increased over the last year – on par with 2013 results. This year, 22 percent of rural participants reported an income decline in the last year, also on par with 2013 and a small improvement from 2010 figures.

There’s no silver bullet, but Blandin Foundation executives plan to use the data to facilitate growth for rural communities throughout the state.

“We use (the survey) primarily to keep our fingers on the pulse of where our communities are,” said Annette in a telephone interview. “It assists us in determining whether we’re on the right track with our own efforts.”

Annette pointed to Blandin’s broadband initiatives, grant making to economic development organizations and educational endeavors, such as Invest Early and its scholarship program, as ways the foundation promotes growth in rural communities.

Blazer added that the state chamber also has been active for the past 14 years encouraging growth in both the metro and Greater Minnesota. Through its Grow Minnesota program, the Minnesota Chamber partners with local chambers, gathering input from 700 to 900 Minnesota-based businesses each year. The Grow Minnesota Program also assists about 200 to 250 businesses each year with issues that are inhibiting growth. Examples include assistance with state permitting or making introductions to new potential customers.

While efforts may be well underway, it’s clear that those who aim to improve rural job growth have their work cut out for them.

Annette asserts that the people of rural Minnesota will certainly aid in the effort. “It always makes me smile when I think about it. We have challenges (in rural Minnesota) but we’re resilient,” she said, pointing to Rural Pulse survey results that found that 70 percent of respondents were optimistic about the future.

For more information on Rural Pulse, including a breakdown of survey results by region, visit www.ruralpulse.org.