Cailie and I headed back to my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI to visit my family for the holidays. While we were there, I decided to take her through some of the small towns in Northern Michigan and out to the lake (I almost said shore which certainly shows the effect of living in NJ). We stopped in the towns of Newaygo and Hesperia. Newaygo (pop 1,976) is a 45 minute drive outside of Grand Rapids. It has a commercial strip along and an industrial park near the intersection of two state highways. Down the hill, in the Muskegon River Valley, are a series of grain silos, a rail line and the historic downtown. The downtown has a couple of restaurants, antique shops and its own beef jerky shop. Given the urban amenities along with great outdoors opportunities including hunting, canoeing, fishing and boating, Newaygo is a very cool town. Hesperia (pop 954) on the other hand is not. Hesperia has many of the same outdoor opportunities as in Newaygo, but is in much worse condition. In this town, the main street is lined with vacant commercial buildings. A grocery store and post office seem to be doing well, but everything else about the town seems to be in a state of decay.
Rural Michigan is going through major challenges and a steep decline. Mechanized farming has decreased the labor needs of agriculture and the rural factories that popped up in the 60’s and 70’s are have in many cases closed down. Michigan has particularly suffered with the changes in the auto industry. The result of this is that small towns that once had a semblance of prosperity are lacking jobs and losing population. In many ways, these same issues are being faced in rural communities across the country. What is to become of these communities? Are they destined to decay or can they be revived?
I hold out a certain amount of optimism about rural communities, but a bit of reality is needed. Agriculture isn’t suddenly going to start having higher labor demands and the factories are not going to return. The traditional jobs that created any prosperity here in the past are not the solution. Furthermore, a lack of amenities will make these towns unattractive to the millennial generation. While there are many opinions about this generation, its vast size will determine to a great extent the spatial patterns of future prosperity. Towns that cannot attract this generation will have a tough time surviving.
Just before the holidays, Cailie and I went up to the Catskills to visit a sick family member. As a favor to minimize the boredom of bedrest, we drove up into the mountains to retrieve a computer charger from the relative’s place of work. It was a beautiful drive through the mountains, but as we got higher, the roads became more snow covered and finally the small ford we had borrowed from a friend was unable to cope with the slope. While preparing to turn around on this steep snowcovered mountain road, I waited for a pickup truck to pass. Instead of passing, the truck stopped and offered to give us a ride to fetch the cable.
The truck served a utilitarian purpose; it had a large plow on the front, work gloves were on the dash and there was a towing chain on the floor. The man owned a large piece of land in the mountains and was heading out to find a christmas tree on his property to take home when he came across us stopped on the mountain. We rode up the snow covered mountain at speeds that I would have been comfortable with during my time as a delivery driver at DHL, but now, being accustomed to active transportation, were a bit unnerving. We discussed the nature of snow plowing (a job I never personally had, but something I experienced by riding along on night time routes with friends who did), the beauty of the mountains, and interior architecture. It turned out that the driver had a degree in architecture and did his CAD work remotely for clients in New York City. The Catskills provided the lifestyle he was looking for despite his work base being located elsewhere.
Living on a large plot of land on top of a mountain while working CAD may be the most extremely rural version of this, something similar is happening to small towns in the Hudson Valley. The towns of the Hudson River Valley provide a combination of easy rural access with urban amenities that could easily attract more individuals like this. Much of the millennial generation prefers urban environments and amenities as can be seen in the large movement to and renewed interest in cities, but there are still portions of this generation that prefer smaller cities and rural life. Small towns that are able to combine the rural amenities with urban amenities may be able to capture some of this generation.
If small towns like Hesperia want to reverse their decline, there are three things they should be doing:
First, they should be working to gain access to high speed communication systems. The old industrial economy isn’t coming back to rural areas and agriculture isn’t going to attract people. The information economy however is within reach. All a town needs for information jobs to be realistic is access to high speed internet. With high speed internet, it is easy to work for clients and businesses from afar.
Second, they need to promote their rural amenities. If they have good fishing, they should brag about it. If their rivers are good for canoeing, they should make sure they are accessible. Attracting and promoting businesses involved in outdoors recreation will be important.
Finally, they should work to renew the historic urban core they were built around. It doesn’t have to be very dense. Building a few three to four story mixed use buildings in their downtown can bring in enough density to allow restaurants, cafes, and other amenities to be viable. It is not necessary to have every attraction possible, but rather have enough to tip the scales and make people choose to move to the town.