What will save rural America?

This question is much larger than the niche of our readership and perhaps the scope of our disciplines, but it’s always being asked nonetheless. And it matters — we’ve got a lot of rural. How do we reframe this type of question to better provide an answer we can solve? Will tech save rural America? Startups? Whose job is it and what, if anything, is our role?

Pausing for a moment to ask for your thoughts and welcome your replies – to either redefining the question or providing an answer. Please comment below the article or email your thoughts to editor@clayandmilk.com.

These questions have been swirling over the past several weeks with the continued news of budget cuts to the arts, education and health and humanities, but on the flipside, a continued increase in entrepreneurial partnerships — a dichotomy of the good and the bad targeting the rural within our state lines. (The question of rural salvation seems to also be at play in the recent episodes of Billions.) 

The bad news for rural America is not new news, with nearly the exact same question posed by the Editorial Staff of The Gazette almost two years ago. Populations have ebbed and flowed with a knack for more ebb than flow since the early 1900s when, as they shared, President Roosevelt’s State of the Union addressed the issue of young residents leaving. The “more active and restless young men and women,” he noted, were driven from rural families and off farms, “for they rebelled at loneliness and lack of mental companionship.” In 1903, Roosevelt had free rural mail delivery, the telephone and the bicycle to thank for a more attractive rural America.

But what makes rural America attractive today? What is enough to make restless young men and women stay within, or move back toward, the seventy-two percent of US land known as rural (but that only fifteen percent call home)?

Zachary Mannheimer, former Executive Director and Founder of the Des Moines Social Club recently joined McClure Engineering Company, and will focus on Creative Placemaking for rural communities, helping them achieve economic and population growth through cultural and entrepreneurial amenities, concepts and catalytic projects, as stated in the announcement.

“Obviously, people will go to the rural areas that feature the most livable amenities they are looking for,” Mannheimer said. “Ten years ago, young people were only coming to Des Moines for a job or a relationship. Today they are coming for other reasons including its relevant vibrancy. The same was true of San Francisco 100 years ago and Brooklyn 60 years ago. This thinking and work are not new.”

While we work through what it means to create “relevant vibrancy” we do know what it will take to sustain it — investment. “On one hand,” Mannheimer states, “rural areas will experience significant growth based on necessity, as artists and immigrants are always the first people to populate a low-cost area. And then, as we have seen in urban areas —Detroit and Des Moines for example, these influencers of culture will make these areas interesting, and therefore investment will follow.”

That investment can come from programs like the most recent announcement coming out of Iowa State University’s Ag Startup Engine at the ISU Research Park, in which Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa (RRIA) will bring education, mentoring and financing resources to young Iowa entrepreneurs. (The RRIA is a statewide economic development initiative created in partnership with Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa, Iowa Agriculture Finance Corp. and Central Iowa Power Cooperative.)

Kevin Kimle, director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative, shared the following statement in the partnership announcement. “The Iowa Farm Bureau has long been a significant supporter of agricultural entrepreneurs and rural economic development. They’ve been affiliated with the program since its inception almost a decade ago, and their ongoing support for the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative benefits the program significantly and results in formation of businesses and farms that positively impact Iowa’s communities.”

Just as generations before us, we’ll continue to ask the right and wrong questions and work hard to answer all of them. Even in times of a shifting political landscape, uncertain budgets and migrating millennials, there will be no shortage of changemakers. Does it matter where they live? Do we want them to stay or are we asking that they return?

We want to hear from you. Whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur,
we want to know your thoughts.

Here’s what we’re reading related to this topic, from blogs to classic paperbacks:

A Complex Portrait of Rural America. The Atlantic’s CityLab
Just What the Heck is “Rural America”? In These Times blog
How to Save Coal Country New Republic
The New Geography of Jobs Enrico Moretti
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier Edward Glaeser
On the Road Jack Kerouac

Jami Milne is the interim managing editor of Clay & Milk. Send her an email at editor@clayandmilk.com.