In the 1950s and 60s, small town America was an okay place to be. Young men returning home from World War II came back to the small towns and farms they had grown up on and started their lives. They started farming; they opened businesses; and they began raising families. There was opportunity, education, and community. As time passed things changed, the next generation left for the cities and more career opportunities. Big box chain stores along the interstates drove the mom and pop stores in town out of business. Technology and globalization left many rural communities behind. Population shifts depleted tax revenues and reduced the political power of rural areas. In short, by the year 2000, small town America was a place to be from not a place you wanted to be going to.
Rural America also became an easy place to ignore. Funds went to build interstate highways not maintain country roads and bridges. State-of-the-art hospitals were built in urban areas, not small towns. In Indiana, the lack of a community college system left few educational opportunities in rural areas. Towns within a 30 minute drive of a large city become bedroom communities as farm fields quickly became housing developments populated by urban folks who had no interest in small town life. The IGA was replace by a Wal-Mart Superstore, and only the bars stayed in business on Main Street.
But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, rural America is slowly reinventing and rebranding itself. In Indiana, this began in 2005 when newly-elected Governor Mitch Daniels and Lt. Governor Becky Skillman reorganized state government. They established the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) and an Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA). Ironically, Skillman had authored the legislation as a state senator, and now as Lt. Governor got to implement it. Skillman, a product of a small town in southern Indiana, had a passion for rural communities and had a vision to bring them into the modern era. She believed that, with the necessary resources, rural areas could compete with cities for jobs, education, technology, and opportunity. For the next 8 years, Skillman and OCRA set out to do just that.
Agriculture is the cornerstone of the rural economy; and, with a pro-agriculture philosophy, Indiana set out to bring food processing and renewable energy production to rural areas. Manufacturing followed as companies discovered, or in some cases re-discovered, that rural areas had plenty of willing, hard working employees, a low tax base, and plenty of land. Technology also played a role as broadband and wireless coverage improved in rural areas. People, both in and outside of rural areas, began to see that small towns were not forgotten backwaters; they could be centers of world class productivity, culture, and opportunity.
In a few short weeks, Becky Skillman will leave state government, but her successor shares her same passion for rural communities. Sue Ellspermann is also from a small town even further south in Indiana. Her goal is to re-brand rural Indiana. “Ruralness is cool,” she told me. She wants to get people excited about living and working in small town America. She believes rural communities can prosper economically. While economic development programs at both the state and federal level will help, it is rural folks themselves who can have the biggest impact. Instead of saying “that can’t be done here,” rural residents need to start saying “How might we do that here?”
With continued innovation, support, and creativity, rural communities can grow, thrive, and survive. But, it will take a committed and caring leaders on the federal, state, and local level to keep this rural revolution moving. This change is moving faster in some communities than others, and not all rural areas will embrace the new reality. But those who do may find themselves in a cool place to be once again.
By Gary Truitt