Humphrey School News—December 13, 2018

Greater Minnesota Communities Launch Campaigns to Recruit New Residents

Ongoing study by Humphrey School and Extension explores motivations, barriers to rural population growth


Downtown Northfield, Minnesota
Downtown Northfield, Minnesota

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 get connected.

It’s not just the "Minnesota nice" thing to do. It’s solid economic development strategy. Turns out, newcomers bring communities more than exotic potluck dishes. They add workers to a depleted workforce and children to school districts.

As part of a three-year study on rural population trends, researchers from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality conducted in-depth interviews with community leaders around the state to see what they’re learning from these initiatives.

The next step in the research project is a survey of newcomers in 20 rural counties, to understand why they moved to rural areas in Minnesota, says Humphrey School Associate Professor Ryan Allen, co-leader of the study. “What drives their interest in living in a rural part of the state, and how can rural areas leverage this interest to encourage others to move there?”

The survey will be available in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali.

Allen said the study will also look at how well different groups of new residents are integrated into these communities, noting that many newcomers to rural Minnesota are immigrants.

A report Allen authored in 2017 determined that attracting more immigrants is the key to growing Minnesota's labor force in the future.

In response, rural leaders are trying out new ideas to market their communities and welcome  newcomers. Extension has identified 14 initiatives throughout the state that are focused on resident recruitment and retention, some of them developed through Extension’s Making it Home program.

Here’s a summary of what rural community leaders told researchers are essential steps to attracting and retaining new residents to their communities.

Connect online
Many newcomers started their search for a new community with a general idea of the area they wanted to live in, and then went online to find a town that met their needs. So initiatives are using social media, online campaigns and websites to find the browsers who are shopping online for rural towns.

Get people hooked through tourism
The first step to getting people to live in a community might be to get them to visit. Research has found a link between tourism experiences and resident attraction, called the Halo Effect.

Promote the simple life
The No. 1 reason people move to smaller communities is to improve their quality of life and to live a simpler life. The Live Wide Open campaign 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.

Make a connection
It takes more than just “buzz” to attract a resident. Community initiatives focus on personal interactions such as phone calls, emails, or Facebook messages.

Bring people to jobs — and jobs to people
Rural employers want to attract good workers, but employers don’t always promote the positive aspects of the community as they recruit workers. So community leaders are stepping in, helping employers show prospective employees what’s great about the community. They are also helping newcomers find the jobs they need.

Create welcoming experiences
It’s important to connect newcomers and their families to the community in the first six months, to make them feel welcome. One community’s efforts involve volunteers taking new residents to lunch, to get to know them a little better.

The sticky factor
Newcomers can sometimes face resistance from established residents. Initiatives like ReGEN and Fairmont Area Life make an effort to help newcomers find places where they will feel welcome and share common interests. ReGEN connects millennials who have moved to the Iron Range.

Address the essentials
Rural areas face critical issues when it comes to essentials like housing and child care. And finding essential services can be especially difficult when English is not a newcomers’ first language. Leaders of rural recruitment initiatives are getting more involved in addressing those issues.

Challenges to attracting and retaining newcomers:

  • Jobs are available in rural areas, but there aren’t enough centralized jobs databases that connect those looking to move to an area with jobs located there.
  • Newcomers need better ways to discover all community opportunities.
  • Housing, public transportation, and services for immigrants are sometimes lacking. This is even tougher for those whose first language isn’t English.
  • Resistance from long-term residents. It can be a challenge to break into established communities.
  • Getting workers to take a job may require convincing workers that a rural place is for them.

The study is funded by a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It’s expected to be completed in March 2020.

Read more about Extension's rural resident recruitment initiatives.

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