Americans trade urban bustle for rural life

Census figures show a migration to remote suburbs and Norman Rockwell towns, even if it means a pay cut.

Americans are pushing out to the countryside - either to more-pristine and less-crowded suburbs or to remote rural areas where they can live by a mountain, lake, or ocean.

This return to rural areas, after a hiatus in the 1980s, reconfirms a movement first seen in the 1970s. It suggests that after two centuries of urbanization, which emptied America's countryside and fueled the growth of its great metropolises, the nation has reached a rough equilibrium.

Metropolitan areas continue to grow (up a preliminary 14 percent during the 1990s, according to new census figures). But rural America is coming on strong (up a preliminary 10 percent). In 11 states as diverse as Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Utah, nonmetro growth actually outpaced the rise in metropolitan population.

Here in Missouri, the trout streams and country-music shows of Branson have proved a stronger draw than the quicker pace of St. Louis or Kansas City. The counties surrounding this resort mecca represent some of the state's biggest growth areas.

This rural rebound remains patchy. Some areas, notably in the Great Plains, continue to decline. But in those areas that are growing, local governments are struggling to keep ahead of the sometimes explosive influx of people. If the rebound continues, it could signal a restructuring of work, as would-be employees live farther away from the workplace.

"Everybody is watching the baby boom [generation] very carefully," says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at Loyola University in Chicago. "If just some of them retire, they may kind of disengage from the labor force more gradually. You don't quit, but you become a consultant."

The rural rebound stems from many things. Part of it is a numbers game. So many people live in metropolitan areas - 4 of 5 Americans - that even a small flow to rural regions can pack a dramatic wallop, says Calvin Beale, senior demographer with the US Agriculture Department's economic research service. And using new census figures to describe nonmetropolitan growth remains a tricky and preliminary undertaking, because the White House Office of Management and Budget is scheduled to redefine what "metropolitan" means in two years.

Even so, the move to less-crowded surroundings remains impressive. Cutting-edge suburbs of a decade ago are giving way to even more remote areas. Colorado's Douglas County, for example, saw its population nearly triple - the fastest growth of any county in the United States - despite its location halfway between Colorado Springs and Denver. No. 2 Forsyth County, in Georgia, grew 123 percent, even though it lies two counties away from rapidly expanding Atlanta. New York City's fastest-growing suburb - Pike County - lies two states away in eastern Pennsylvania.

Far from the madding crowd

Meanwhile, nonmetro counties accounted for half of the nation's fastest-growing areas (counties whose population increased more than 50 percent during the decade). While critics worry, with justification, about the effects of sprawl, the driving force behind it is people's desire for deconcentration, demographers say.

"They want to live in this low-density environment, live close to the schools, have some control over their lives," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute, a nonprofit economic think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.

When one suburb becomes congested, families move out to the next ring. "I don't think we've stopped trying to get away from the crowded suburbs," says John Blodgett, who manages the data archives for the Missouri Census Data Center in Jefferson City. When he himself moved out of St. Louis County nearly 20 years ago, less-crowded St. Charles was 80 percent farmland. By the time he moved out 2-1/2 years ago, 90 percent had become overrun by subdivisions.

While this trend continues, a population flow to more remote areas also seems to be gathering steam. The trend first caught demographers' attention in the 1970s, when for the first time in decades, nonmetro areas grew faster than the metro areas. The phenomenon fizzled in the 1980s with the downturn in agriculture, but has picked back up during the 1990s. More Americans are either staying in rural America or cutting the economic umbilical cord that ties them to urban centers and moving to remote resort areas.

Not surprisingly, many of them are retirees. But in the 1990s, unlike the '70s, the flow of younger, working people to the countryside seems to be increasing. Apparently, they're restructuring their work, either telecommuting or taking a cut in pay to live what they hope are less stressful and more balanced lives.

Missouri's top magnet used to be St. Charles County, a St. Louis suburb that notched 48 percent growth in the '80s. The county is still growing, but no longer as rapidly as those surrounding Branson or one suburb of the smaller Springfield, Mo.

Thanks to the development of top-notch country-music shows, a theme park, and exceptional trout fishing, Branson has proved to be a powerful magnet for people seeking a change of lifestyle. "I wanted to get out of Wisconsin for two reasons: winters and taxes," says Bill Silva, a mechanical engineer who retired here in 1989 with his wife. Branson proved a far warmer and far cheaper place to live.

Last year, Nick and Karen Ryan of suburban Kansas City decided they had had enough of fast-paced living. Mr. Ryan gave up accounting, and Ms. Ryan traded in the cellphone and two pagers of her psychology practice in order to buy and run the 12-room Vacation Place Resort along Branson's Lake Taneycomo.

"We needed to decompress," says Mr. Ryan, as fishing boats and geese move across the lake by his house. "I've seen more wildlife in the last eight months than I have in the last 10 years."

The price they pay

The move has had its challenges. The Ryans miss their Kansas City bookstore and coffee shops. They have taken a pay cut of at least 50 percent to make their move, although they hope to build up their resort business and eventually make up the difference. Ms. Ryan still consults three days a week at a hospital 45 minutes away.

Growth has brought change to the area. Taney and Stone Counties rank among the nation's 85 fastest-growing. Taxes went up when the Branson school system passed two major bond issues to build schools, to keep up with a 55 percent increase in students during the 1990s.

Traffic along the city's "Strip" - which houses the country-music palaces and comedy shows - got so bad that planners invested $37 million for new and improved roads so residents could move around. Still, weekend nights can become so busy on the Strip that traffic virtually stops while visitors gawk at the "world's largest banjo" and the signs announcing performances of Bobby Vinton, Andy Williams, and the Osmonds.

It's not clear who will fuel the growth once these entertainers retire. Mike Rankin, executive director of the Branson Regional Economic Development Association, is recruiting industry to come to the area. Next month, he hopes to announce the coming of two small California firms that have decided to make the move to rural Missouri.

"The Gen-Xers and baby boomers, they're going to live where they want," he says. So in the future, "businesses are going to tend to follow people rather than people following businesses. I believe Gen-Xers and boomers are going to live here."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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