Rawlins County, Kansas Example
This month I want to share with you some really good news from the heart of Rural America and some potentially depressing news about 2011. Let's start with the good news.
Success from the Heart of Rural America
Rawlins County and its county seat of Atwood are located in extreme northwestern Kansas. This puts this community in the heart of the "Buffalo Commons." Town building came late to this country and it has been losing population ever since the turn of the century (1900). Today just under 2,600 souls call Rawlins County home. But likes lots of communities, this place has CAN DO people. They have been working hard and long to rebuild and ensure a prosperous future. We have had a chance to work with Rawlins County for about a decade and recently we have been collaborating to capture this community's development story. We see strong evidence that their development efforts are bending the trend lines in the right directions.
Figure 1. Rawlins County, Kansas Nonfarm Proprietors' Income & Employment 1960-2008
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Regional Economic Accounts
Figure 1 charts changes in real personal income and employment related to proprietor class businesses from 1969 through 2008. As you can see things began to improve dramatically in the mid- to late 1990s. There was no oil boom or other event. We think this tipping point is due to a smart game plan and cumulative development efforts by the community.
Figure 2. Rawlins County, Kansas Net Migration
Source: Internal Revenue Service, Statistics of income, Migration Data
But for Great Plains communities like Atwood and Rawlins County the real proof that things are getting better is measured in population change. Using data from the Internal Revenue Service we can track in- and out-migration at the county level. Figure 2 displays net migration for Rawlins county over the past decade. Most of the decade is typical for communities like this one in the Great Plains - negative net migration. Bottom line, more folks are moving out than moving in. But look at what happens in 2005 - there is a turning point and the beginning of improving demographics.
For places like Western Kansas or Eastern Montana loss of people means fewer children and loss of local education. Opportunities for consolidation are few and that means kids spend a lot of time on the bus or driving. Losing a local school can kill a community. Figure 3 provides comparable data for the past decade on enrollment in the local school. After seeing a free fall decline of 34% we now are seeing stabilization. We think these dots connect and that the development work of Rawlins County is growing a stronger economy capable of bending the demographic trend lines.
If you would like to learn more about Rawlins County and its development game plan drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also access Rawlins County's SocioEconomic profile by clicking here and background piece by clicking here.
Figure 3. Rawlins County, Kansas USD 105 School Enrollment
Source: Kansas Department of Education & Kansas USD 105, 2010
Crisis in 2011?
In America, communities are largely responsible for their development. In rural America, economic development is largely funded by main street and local government. The Great Recession's legacy is now impacting local governments in profound ways. Budget cutting is severe and we are seeing a pattern of funding cuts for local economic development. Hey, if you are a County Commissioners do you support the local development corporation and grade fewer county roads? You know how that decision will come out. Next week there is likely to be big changes in Congress due to the mid-term elections and the standard policy line is to cut federal spending. We anticipate that in 2011 there will be significant federal budget cuts (particularly in the domestic discretionary budget). These cuts will reduce state aid and states will in turn pass the pain on to local governments and public higher education (major economic development players in rural America). 2011 and beyond could see dramatic cuts in support for local economic development. Whether you agree with these politics or not - your community might want to prepare for what is coming.
Don Macke - Center for Rural Entrepreneurship