The Rural Imperative

"Those areas get into a cycle of decline where the smaller they get, the more drivers there are to get even smaller."

by / May 13, 2013
Photo: Mitchell, S.D.'s Corn Palace by Parkerdr Wikimedia Commons

If you've ever heard of Mitchell, S.D. -- population 15,000 -- it's probably because of the Corn Palace, an iconic building covered with stunning murals made of corn cobs. The Corn Palace was built in the 19th Century as a celebration of the region's corn, soybeans and winter wheat. "It's the world's only Corn Palace," said Mayor Ken Tracy, pictured below, "and we're proud of it."

But these days, Mitchell has even more to be proud of. It was recently designated a " Smart 21 Community of 2013" -- one of only 21 around the world -- by the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) for successfully revamping its culture and infrastructure to tackle the 21st Century.

For many rural areas, the transition from agriculture to the information society has been hard, and over the last few decades, the area around Mitchell has lost nearly 30 percent of its population. But Mitchell has a different story -- it is slowly gaining population as it builds on its strengths of Internet connectivity and a coalition of private-sector and government people who exemplify what ICF's Robert Bell calls the "innovation triangle" of business, government and academic institutions.

"We've been losing rural populations for a long time," said Bell. "We've mechanized resource extraction, mining, oil, farming, fishing, almost all the traditional industries." 

The result? Fewer jobs and a dwindling population. "Those areas get into a cycle of decline where the smaller they get, the more drivers there are to get even smaller," Bell noted. "Fewer people offer fewer services and a smaller tax base."

Urbanization and the decline of rural population is happening all over the world. By 2050, some researchers predict a global population of 10 billion, most of whom will live in 30 huge megacities of tens of millions of residents each. Why? Because big cities are where the jobs are and the economy lives.

But while many people love bustling sidewalks, honking horns, towering skyscrapers and rattling subway trains, others prefer a sunny hillside cabin in the country, with a small flower patch, a few goats and a long gravel road to town. The problem with country living, however, is often, "how can I earn a living?" And according to Bell, Mitchell might have part of the answer.

The Innovation Triangle

The basic infrastructure of the 21st Century, said Bell, is broadband. "We all know roads, rail lines, airports and what they do -- broadband is the new one. Broadband is the first essential."

Roger Musick, pictured at left, is CEO of  Innovative Systems -- an advanced telecomm services firm located in Mitchell. He says that beginning in the 1980s and early 1990s, firms working in Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota built three statewide high-speed fiber networks that were owned by independent telephone companies and connected most of the communities in those three states. "That," he said, "gave us a great low-cost middle mile."

Area leaders saw the opportunity, Tracy said, and tried to get the city into the telecommunications business. "But we had a vote on it and the vote failed," he added. "The electorate didn't want the city to get involved."

Instead, the private sector stepped up; a cable provider ran fiber to most homes in Mitchell.

"Then, a neighboring company did a fiber overbuild back in 2003," said Musick. "They were funded through a RUS [Rural Utility Service] loan, so we have two high speed choices in Mitchell for TV, Internet and telephone."

In the 1890s, Mitchell needed farmers to settle and used the Corn Palace to help promote the idea. Bryan Hisel, executive director Mitchell Area Development Corp. pictured at left, said that as automation began to change farming, Mitchell began to recruit companies such as 3M to the area. And while that was relatively successful, said Hisel, the community didn't want to be just a satellite town. "A group of engineers -- including Roger [Musick] started Martin Group."

That group -- doing communications engineering and consulting -- expanded to three companies and now employs 500 people.

And now, Musick says, Innovative Systems has a partnership with the fiber-to-the-home provider. "We develop voice and IP-TV-type services, and they allow us to put our services out on their fiber network to our employees and test them," he said, adding that the employees can then develop a new service in the morning, for instance, and have it at their homes ready for use in the afternoon to see if they like it or not. From there, he said, they can "tweak it and go to market with it. And we sell products and services to pretty much the entire communications market in the U.S. We have two other major communications firms in town that, likewise, use it for their employees."

Another side of the triangle -- education -- is also evident in Mitchell. Seventh through 12th graders are given laptops; and the area boasts a two-year technical vocational institute focused on business, communications technology and precision farming, as well as Dakota Wesleyan University, a four-year degree-granting college. Both institutions have increasing enrollment, and one-third of Dakota Wesleyan's graduates stay in the area.

In addition, city government is working hard to attract and retain young families. "The city has taken the lead to improving quality of life," said Mayor Tracy. "We built a new outdoor aquatic center, a soccer complex with 10 fields, an indoor hockey arena, and added another sheet of ice to the existing hockey facility. We've done a lot in terms of improving the amenities, and I think it is now an attractive place for young families."

Mitchell also has a high-tech hospital with high-speed telemedicine connections to 130 other regional hospitals.

Rural Renaissance

ICF's Bell participated in a study of 11 Minnesota communities -- commissioned by the Blandin foundation and scheduled for release later this month -- that was designed to help those communities become more competitive in a rapidly urbanizing world.

"People don't react well to change," said Bell. "You fall back on what you know, that remembered past that never actually existed, where everything was OK. So much of our debate is people mythologizing the past. Our current lives are nothing like that. If all you can do is work with your hands in America, you are going to be extremely poor. That's the simplicity of it. But our identities haven't caught up with that yet."

That's a hard lesson for communities rooted in a successful but fading past, said Hisel. "We left the public at large behind in what the future needed," he said, "and it was an obvious failure when we tried to get the new utility, and the public wasn't on board. This discussion we're having is something we need to do much more of."

But the story of Mitchell is a unique one, Tracy says. "We've stepped into the 21st century, out here in the boondocks in South Dakota; we're growing and proud of what we've accomplished."

But with the help of broadband, the innovation triangle and forward-thinking people like those in Mitchell, other communities may also be joining the ranks of a rural Renaissance.

Main photo of Mitchell, S.D.'s Corn Palace by Parkerdr/Wikimedia Commons

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.