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USDA grant will help study resident retention

WORTHINGTON — The University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality recently received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study how rural communities recruit and retain residents to supply their workforces.

Many researchers have found that rural Minnesota towns have a shortage of young people between 18 and 25 years old, which creates what many call a “brain drain.” However, studies done by Ben Winchester, a U of M Extension rural sociologist, have found a trend of 30- to 49-year-olds moving to rural towns, bringing their education and experience along with their families.

Kent Olson, associate dean of the Center for Community Vitality, said the funds will be used for a three-year project that will expand Winchester’s research and explore strategies to retain those newcomers, as well as study how they’ve adapted to their new home. He explained that as baby boomers retire, many rural communities are starting to ask who will replace those workers.  

“This project will allow us to better understand why people move to rural areas and what makes communities successful in keeping them,” Olson said. “As initiatives sprout up around Minnesota, we want to know what works.”

Olson noted that many 30- to 49-year-olds moving to rural Minnesota don’t necessarily have previous experiences in those towns.The new study will also focus on immigrant and minority communities living in rural areas and compare their experiences.  

“How have the newcomers become accepted into the community?” Olson said. “How can the community can make themselves welcoming to the newcomers?”

Those are some of the questions that the three-year study hopes to answer. The Extension will partner with community groups and organizations to connect with residents. Through focus groups and surveys, the aim is to discover the struggles and how newcomers flourish in their adopted communities.  

Extension researchers will focus on all different regions, concentrating their efforts on small towns.

“Our main goal is to find out what are some of the good things places like Worthington or Wilmont are doing with newcomers and help other communities that are still trying to figure it out,” Olson said.

Neil Linscheid, associate professor at the U of M Extension Center for Community Vitality, said he’s excited to have the resources to conduct more in-depth research on such an important topic.

“Worthington, Jackson, Luverne all the way up to International Falls, people are very curious about how they can make their community an attractive place to live,” Linscheid said. “They want to see their communities succeed.”

As rural demographics change, Linscheid said the goal is to discover methods to help communities adapt to their new populations.

“Many towns are changing and they continue to change, and there are positive and negative things happening at the same time, so it’s about our perspective on how we react to those changes that is more important,” Linscheid said.

Findings will inform future Extension educational programs and economic development initiatives, resulting in new community education that informs local policy-making and initiative planning.