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Published May 11, 2009, 07:18 AM

Other views: Midwest can compete

Grand Forks is a college town and sits at the intersection of two four-lane highways. But attracting new businesses still is tough. And if economic development is a challenge in Grand Forks, it can seem almost impossible in rural North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Especially because the Great Plains lacks mountains and beach front, the “scenic amenities” that help drive rural growth.

By: Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun

Grand Forks is a college town and sits at the intersection of two four-lane highways. But attracting new businesses still is tough.

And if economic development is a challenge in Grand Forks, it can seem almost impossible in rural North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Especially because the Great Plains lacks mountains and beach front, the “scenic amenities” that help drive rural growth.

But Midwesterners, take heart. Scenery is one thing, but it’s not the only thing. Surprisingly, neither are transportation links, a pleasant climate or some other seeming building blocks of a healthy economy.

That’s the conclusion of “Why some rural communities prosper while others do not,” research conducted in 2007 at the University of Illinois. (The report is available at www.community-wealth.org.)

“More than 300 rural counties and 200 mixed rural counties are more prosperous than the nation as a whole,” the report declares.

“Each has lower unemployment rates, lower poverty rates, lower school dropout rates and better housing conditions than the nation. Some of the statistical results support empirically what many rural people believe to be true: religious groups and other ties that bind people together can really matter.

Some findings are more conventional: “Rural communities with relatively more people with some college education are more likely to prosper, as are communities with vigorous, competitive, private economies.”

Other findings “contradict conventional thought,” the report notes.

“Geographical factors that are impossible or expensive to change, including climate and distances to cities and major airports, are relatively unimportant in distinguishing between prosperous and other rural places.”

How can climate be “relatively unimportant”?

First, the report measures prosperity, not growth — a more common variable in studies of this kind. Growth is a means to an end; the end that people actually want is prosperity, the report suggests.

Besides, “a growing community can have high unemployment rates, high poverty rates, crowded and expensive housing, and difficulty getting and keeping children enrolled in schools,” the report declares.

“Growth does not guarantee the prosperity of a community’s residents or their community.” Growth is the factor that climate, scenic amenities and the like promote. And “prosperous” is not the same as “rich.” Prosperous communities are those with good housing, low unemployment, poverty and high-school dropout rates. They’re stable, middle-class communities, with a mix of farming, manufacturing and other jobs. And they’re actually more abundant in the Midwest and Northeast than elsewhere.

The culture and leadership of a place seem to matter, especially in things such as making sure young people graduate from high school. Those are factors Midwestern communities can control — and doing so sure beats fretting about the lack of beaches and downhill ski runs in the region.

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