Building in the middle of everything

Participants from across the Midwest attend Rural That Works conference held in Hamilton County

— Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship Participants in the Rural that Works conference held Thursday at Backcountry Winery near Stratford take part in a break out session. The conference continues today at Jewell Golf and Country Club.

STRATFORD — A conference held in Hamilton County which was geared toward growing and strengthening small towns drew participants from all over the Midwest this week.

The Rural That Works Conference, organized by Deb Brown of Building Possibility and Sarah Thompson of Rural Revitalization LLC, was held Thursday at the Backcountry Winery near Stratford. The two-day event will conclude today at the Jewell Golf and Country Club.

“We wanted to host a rural conference in a rural town,” said Brown. “So we picked two towns.”

Several sessions were presented throughout the day Thursday, including how to register historic places, innovative rural business models, a panel discussion on economic development and local people, local success. Today will feature a presentation on creating events out of nothing, a panel led by Jewell Area Development Enterprise discussing how the community filled its empty storefronts and a panel discussion on art as economic development.

Networking is another key aspect of the conference, according to Brown. Attendees from the same communities or areas were split up and paired with other participants.

“That way they got to meet some new people and share ideas. We have some activities where we’re going to do exactly that. We’ll be looking at what rural problems might be and finding solutions to those as a group,” Brown said.

Thompson said she was pleased with the attendance for the first conference.

“We were happy with the turnout,” she said, “and we hope there will be more conferences like this in the future. We’re definitely open to that.”

Thompson said one goal of the conference was to have participants learn how to present the information to people in their own communities. Each will go home with videos and handouts so they can bring their communities together to share the takeaways.

Brown said the conference was tailored to allow people to attend both days, just for one day or for just the Thursday keynote speaker, Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist from Minnesota Extension.

Winchester spoke on the theme “Rural Is Not Dying — Get Over It.” He said that when the media reports about rural areas, often what is mentioned is decline, the loss of population and brain drain as young people leave for urban areas.

Winchester said that the first part of the the 20th century brought many changes to the nation and to rural areas. Agriculture became mechanized, greater educational opportunities developed and new roads and transportation systems meant that rural areas were no longer isolated. Towns began to compete to be regional centers, he said.

Winchester said that now, most of the rural economy is not dependent upon agriculture,.

“Education and health care now have the most jobs in rural America,” according to Winchester.

He added that while societal changes affect both urban and rural areas, often the impact is more apparent in rural communities. As an example, he said if a grocery store chain closes in several stores in an urban setting, it may not become front page news. But if a store closes in a rural community, it’s likely the only one, creating a greater impact.

Winchester said that rural populations have increased, up 11 percent since 1970. One in five people live in rural areas, he said.

People are also living regional lives, he said, often choosing to live in one community, work in another and dine, shop and play in yet another. He offered the example of the Des Moines area and the suburbs that have expanded and widened over the past decade.

“We live in the middle of everywhere,” he said. “We live regional lives.”

While urban areas are attracting more 18 to 29 year olds, rural communities are seeing 30 to 59 year olds moving to rural settings.

“Why are they moving? They cite simpler pace of life, safety and security and low housing costs as reasons.”

Of those newcomers, Winchester said about 36 percent may be previous residents.

“They may be leaving a career or they become under employed, yet quality of life is the trump card,” he said.