At the Northern Forest Center, we share the concerns of rural places facing the alarming loss of young people and the resulting pressures on the ability of schools, health care and local governments to provide excellent services. This loss endangers the very social fabric of communities. And yet, there are bright spots of resurgence across the Northern Forest; communities that are finding ways to rekindle their vitality and draw in new people. Our collective challenge is to learn from these places and transfer their great examples to help communities across the region.
There’s no denying it—the challenges presented by declining populations, particularly in younger demographics, place a drag on the overall economy. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, a self-perpetuating cycle is taking over in some areas:
“Capital chases high-growth ideas, and high-growth ideas tend to be concentrated in areas of highly educated and highly skilled workforce,” said Manuel Adelino, an economist at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University who has published several research papers on entrepreneurship patterns and credit availability. “This suggests that the lack of new business formation in rural America may lead to widening gaps in income and employment” between those areas and big cities.
That’s a disturbing prognosis, but I’ve observed that community response varies. It seems that communities that grew up around one primary employer providing manufacturing jobs and high wages for decades feel the greatest impact from global economic trends and subsequent demographic shifts.
In contrast, communities that relied on a more diversified, smaller economy are reinventing themselves more quickly. By necessity, these communities responded as trends and markets changed, capitalizing on access to natural resources and retaining the integrity of their downtown commercial districts. They invested in infrastructure and education, and were open and eager to receive new residents.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that these communities have “figured it out” completely. Challenges will always persist. But, the odds are better stacked for those who seek a diversified economy. They’re building on their natural amenities, investing in new ideas, and presenting their communities in positive, can-do ways and—most importantly—are stabilizing population and retaining and attracting younger people. Examples exist across the Northern Forest, such as Littleton, NH, which was featured in a recent Business NH Magazine article. An energetic group of group of younger farmers, brewers, and recreationists is helping to strengthen and invigorate that community.
The Center is building on its traditional forest economy work to help communities reposition themselves for the future. We’ll be engaging community members, offering our skills and connections, leveraging partnerships, and coordinating emerging energy to help communities demonstrate that rural places can indeed attract and retain the young people needed for them to thrive into the future. The future of the Northern Forest depends on it.
Finding the upward spiral