Nostalgia vs Reality In Small Towns

Have I mentioned that I like small towns? In the course of my life, I have lived in small towns, large towns, small cities, large cities and in the country. Small towns are to be preferred over their larger, busier neighbors, in my way of thinking, because the rules are simpler and the populace tend to have more in common with each other–a true sense of shared community.

That said, there is a reason small towns in South Dakota are drying up and blowing away: the underlying culture and economy has changed. Despite that, the state of South Dakota is attempting to reduce the rate of attrition:

The South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development plans to focus on developing the 420 towns in the state with fewer than 5,000 people, but a retired economics professor says it will be a difficult task.

The professor is quite right.

The railroads (the reason for many a small town on the prairie) have pulled thousands of miles of track, starting back in the late 70s or early 80s. Many of the grain elevators disappeared, or simply shut down, when the rails left. Small towns used to be the go-to place for the farmers in the surrounding area for supplies. Now, a farmer or rancher doesn’t think much of driving an hour or two to pick up needed materials or equipment.

Brown said small communities continue to see declining populations because attracting businesses is difficult. He also said most growth takes place in cities of 10,000 or more people, or in suburbs of larger cities such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

Exactly. Businesses wish to do business where people are–because that is where the money is. Of course, one of the things which the article does not mention is that many a small (and not so small) town would like to have its cake and eat it, too. That is, the town wishes to remain nice and neat and comfortable while maintaining a sufficient tax base to keep things going–without any new businesses disrupting the area. The town of Elk Point comes most immediately to mind, but I am certain that our slightly chilly state has several other examples.

In brief, I do not think that focusing on the hundreds of small towns in the state (and spending taxpayer dollars on “development”) will change the momentum of the last 3 or 4 generations. That is not to say that all the small towns are dying and there is nothing which can be done to restore them to former glory. Few, however, will be able to survive the transition and still look and feel like themselves.

The times, they are a changin’.