By Joyce Hoelting
Newcomers to Minnesota sometimes joke that “Minnesotans will give you directions to everywhere but their house.” But community leaders across the state are trying to change that. They’re designing regional campaigns that welcome newcomers to visit, live, work, and connect.
It’s not just the “Minnesota nice” thing to do. It’s a solid economic development strategy. Turns out, newcomers bring communities more than exotic potluck dishes. They also add workers to a depleted workforce and children to school districts.
The University of Minnesota Extension’s 2016 study of rural business succession found that 33% of those who bought rural businesses were new to the community. An additional 12% had returned to their hometown to take over a business. (Learn more at z.umn.edu/braingain.)
The Extension study has inspired rural leaders to actively market their communities and welcome newcomers.
“Rural leaders are ready to try new things,” says Ben Winchester, an Extension educator whose research shows rural places are attracting 30–49-year-olds. In response, 14 initiatives throughout the state are focused on resident recruitment and retention. And rural communities are developing local recruitment initiatives through Extension’s Making It Home program.
In 2017 and 2018, Extension conducted in-depth interviews to find out what community leaders are learning from these initiatives. These interviews revealed the following five actions as essential ingredients of rural resident attraction and retention.
1. Connect online.
Extension-led focus groups with newcomers in 2010 found that most started their search for a new community with a general idea of the area they wanted to live in, and then they went online to find a community that met their needs. So, initiatives are using social media, online campaigns, and websites to discover who is shopping online for rural communities.
2. Promote the simple life.
“People migrate to rural communities for a number of reasons,” says Winchester. “Their No. 1 reason is to attain a slower pace of life.”
The Live Wide Open campaign (www.livewideopen.com) shows the world how good quality of life can be in west central Minnesota. Its website features newcomers who are glad they made the move. Newcomer testimonies describe how moving improved their lives.
3. Make a connection.
Initiative leaders know it takes more than just “buzz” to attract a resident. Each initiative has put strategies in place to make a connection. They assure those who are thinking about moving that they can make a life in rural areas.
“Once somebody gets in the funnel as a prospective employee or resident, you’ve got to make sure that individual gets one-on-one interaction,” says Mike Bjerkness, workforce director with the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation. “Whether it’s a phone call, an email, or a Facebook message.”
4. Hook them with tourism.
The first step to getting people to live in a community might be to get them to visit. Extension Tourism Center Director Cynthia Messer notes that research has found a link between tourism experiences and resident attraction. It’s called the halo effect.
“Minnesota is particularly good at this,” says Messer. “After visiting Minnesota, people are far more likely to say Minnesota is a good place to live, to start a career, or to retire.”
In Otter Tail County, the Rural Rebound initiative integrates resident recruitment into tourism outreach. “A head in the bed, even if it’s for two nights, is a potential resident someday,” says Eric Osberg, Rural Rebound coordinator.
5. Create welcoming experiences.
Reaching out to newcomers early is important. “If we don’t connect newcomers and their families to the community in the first six months, there’s a chance we’re going to lose them,” says Bjerkness.
In Otter Tail County, Osberg recruits volunteers to make a connection with new residents in the “Grab-a-Bite” program. “We ask champions to take newcomers to lunch without the pressure to join any particular groups or volunteer, but just to get to know them,” he says.
“We see leaders of rural recruitment initiatives getting deeply involved in critical issues of community and economic development. They are at the table when it comes to housing problems, main street development, transportation issues, and more,” Winchester says.
“These initiatives can bring the voices of newcomers and their concerns to policymakers and businesses who are investing in the community,” he adds. “Because newcomers are more than new neighbors — they are the community’s future workforce and life blood.”
Joyce Hoelting, assistant director of the University of Minnesota Extension for Community Vitality, wrote this article on behalf of Sourcewell (www.sourcewell-mn.gov/). Sourcewell is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).