Rural West Seeks to Lure Youths Back From Cities
States try to spur job growth without sacrificing quality of life in small towns.
SALT LAKE CITY — For more than a generation, many cities in the rural West like Tremonton, Utah, have watched their children grow up, go to school, and move away.
As mining, farming, and ranching - traditional staples of the rural economy - have waned, the boom of high-tech industries in cities throughout the West has created a one-way flow of urban immigrants.
Now, states from Washington to Colorado are taking concrete steps to ensure that rural areas remain healthy and vital well into the next century. But while loans and renewed investment are luring more businesses out of metro areas, many locals worry that the new development will undermine their precious rural heritage. It's a struggle that will determine the direction the West's frontier towns take as they seek to balance opportunity with tradition.
"Rural communities want to capitalize on their strengths and advantages, but not sell their soul," says Flo Raitano, director of Colorado's Rural Development Council, one of 39 started under the Bush administration.
Nowhere is the effort more noticeable, or perhaps more needed, than in neighboring Utah. The state as a whole has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, hovering around 3 percent. But outside the cities, 10 percent of the state's working-age population is jobless.
Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) has launched a rural-resettlement drive bolstered by a multimillion-dollar Industrial Assistance Fund (IAF) and an eagerness to encourage planning for the future.
"Mining, farming, ranching made up the agriculture communities of yesteryear," says Richard Nelson, director of the IAF. "[These communities] just aren't supported by those industries to the same degree anymore."
Utah's shifting focus
The drive is significant not only for the money it brings to rural towns, but also because it represents a new emphasis on rural issues. After some bitter experiences with urban redevelopment a few years ago, the Utah legislature mandated that half the IAF funds go to rural areas. Previously, the IAF had made loans to huge companies, including McDonnell Douglas and Micron Corp. Both received multimillion-dollar loans to build large manufacturing facilities in the state, and both, for different reasons, suffered economic downturns that delayed, and perhaps prevented, their plans to operate here - to the embarrassment of the state.
During the past 12 months, the IAF has made six rural loans totaling $1.4 million and only one urban loan for $200,000. Mr. Nelson, for instance, helped persuade a $250-million, Montreal-based company, Intertape Polymer Group, to open a facility in Tremonton. The company was attracted by the pool of well-educated, hard-working, and underemployed rural residents in the small northern town. Now Tremonton, and other towns like it, are hoping that new businesses will bring young people back.
"Sure, it creates a tension in rural communities," Dr. Raitano says. But "in the 1970s, most of the kids left home. Those kids have kids and now say there's got to be something better [than city life]."
They're coming home to an ethic as much as a tradition - a sense that people look out for each other. "Rural communities are the keepers of the American dream," Raitano says, "the keepers of the American values."
Yet this tightly knit sense of community will be endangered by the governor's rural-redevelopment plan, say critics. Some legislators fear that growth will destroy the small-town, rural lifestyle or turn towns into cookie-cutter retirement communities like St. George in southern Utah. Others, wary of financial boondoggles, point to Wyoming, where the state raised and spent a large sum of money on a fiber-optics network that is grossly underused.
But Wyoming's experience should not discourage other efforts, Raitano says. Rather, she points to a successful example in her native Colorado.
Redevelopment done right
A huge capital investment by the Durango phone company has helped the rural town of 15,000 blossom. Epitomizing the renaissance is Bill Lupien, a Los Angeles resident who moved to Durango permanently when the company installed a phone jack in his weekend ranch. Now capable of living a rural lifestyle with an urban paycheck, the inventor of computer stock-trading software has invested more than just money in the local economy.
In addition to bringing his international company to Durango, he also teaches at Ft. Lewis College in his spare time and hires graduates to staff his growing business. In short, he has helped lift rural Colorado into the global market and sustain itself.
Indeed, the coming of age of telecommunications has helped Durango keep pace without giving in to smoke-bellowing industries. And Raitano adds that this is a good example of how rural investment can benefit communities in other states throughout the region.
"We're not advocating rampant development of the West," she says. "We've begun the realization that growth of a community doesn't necessarily equate to more people."