Monday, April 03, 2017

Larger rural towns that lack urban competition thrive, while smaller surrounding towns struggle

Off the beaten path, larger rural towns in regions that have little competition from urban areas, are thriving—sometimes at the expense of smaller surrounding towns, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. "Of nearly 2,000 rural counties in the U.S., about 60 percent added jobs last year, while 40 percent contracted, according to federal figures." The most successful towns and counties were ones "close enough to a big city, but not so close as to be crushed by the competition," that have "good access by air and highway for passengers and freight" and "enough trained workers if and when new companies knock on the door."

Region dubbed Magic
Valley (Wikipedia map)
One region that fits that bill, Johnson writes, is "the nine-county south-central region of Idaho anchored by Twin Falls," where unemployment is 3.2 percent—lower than booming Seattle or Idaho’s biggest city, Boise. With a population of 47,000 Twin Falls is easily the biggest community for a hundred miles in any direction, "which makes it a shopping hub," Johnson writes. "Five new hotels have opened since the end of the recession and more than 80,000 people a day drive in to work or shop. It’s a firmly Republican area in a state where President Trump won 42 of 44 counties, and it’s growing. From 2000 to 2015, Twin Falls County’s population increased by almost 25 percent—twice as fast as the nation’s."

"But above all else, city leaders, business owners and residents say, it’s a practical place, where the old small-town values of hardball competition shape political life," Johnson writes. "If an idea gets in the way of economic growth, it should be discarded." Fueled by rich volcanic soil that is perfect for growing crops from potatoes to alfalfa, that in turn fed the dairy cows that grew up in what became known as the Magic Valley, Twin Falls has benefited from Clif and Chobani—which pay $15 an hour, twice the state minimum wage of $7.25. That has forced other companies to raise wages and benefits.

"But the success of Twin Falls poses risks for other rural towns," Johnson writes. "In its heady growth spurt, Twin Falls is sucking the oxygen from some smaller, struggling communities farther out in the country as retailers and restaurants cluster in the center. Rows of closed downtown stores in nearby places like Buhl stand in sharp contrast to Main Avenue in Twin Falls, where businesses like the Twin Falls Sandwich Co. are packed with hungry customers. Idaho’s rural population as a whole fell by more than 5 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics."

In nearby Gooding, a town of about 3,500 people 45 minutes from Twin Falls, a King’s discount store, which has been in business "around the West since 1915, announced in February that it would close, unable to compete," Johnson writes. Store manager Janice Jacobson told Johnson, “Seems like everything is moving to Boise or Twin Falls.”

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