Sociologist Ben Winchester speaks about rewriting the rural narrative to an audience of Indiana leaders at Ivy Tech Marion on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Staff photo by Leanann Doerflein
Sociologist Ben Winchester speaks about rewriting the rural narrative to an audience of Indiana leaders at Ivy Tech Marion on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Staff photo by Leanann Doerflein
Leaders from Grant County and several other communities around Indiana gathered at Ivy Tech Marion to learn how to overcome negative attitudes surrounding rural communities on Tuesday.

The Community Foundation of Grant County invited Ben Winchester, senior research fellow with Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, to share how to overcome the rural narrative.

Winchester said his goal is to share U.S. Census Bureau statistics that help debunk negative attitudes shared about rural communities by metropolitan media and by rural residents themselves.

Just like the fields of corn and soybeans surrounding rural Indiana towns, the rural narrative has been cultivated for years, Winchester said. Common phrases like “brain drain,” “middle of nowhere,” “sleepy town” and “nobody locks their doors at night” all contribute to this narrative, he said.

Winchester said the narrative has been written for 80 years or more in some towns. A common reason for this narrative is that the community has had a perceived economic decline.

The fact that small towns don’t look the same is OK, according to Winchester. While businesses have closed and schools have consolidated, he said rural people are not necessarily at fault for these conditions because change is also happening in metropolitan areas. Changes have occurred in the past few decades because of restructuring in the global economy, a shift to regional business centers and a decreased birth rate, he explained.

“The reality is every time you hear about a hardware store closing in a small town, there is one that also closed in Indy,” Winchester said. “The only difference is that there are other stores in walking and driving distance in Indy.”

Instead of focusing on the fact that small towns are often no longer a living Norman Rockwell painting, Winchester said rural people should focus on things they can control like negative phrases and focusing on the future instead of the past.

“Our towns are not where we should be, so we want to look back and blame somebody else,” Winchester said.

A glimmer of hope for rural communities can be found in statistics; since 1970 rural population has gone up. A large reason for this, Winchester said, is the migration to suburbs, as 18 counties have reclassified to urban counties due to migration from the urban core of large Indiana cities. Over this time period, however, Grant County’s population has decreased by 5 percent.

A way to draw new residents, according to Winchester, is to change the narrative from “middle of nowhere” to “middle of everywhere.” Census and personal interview data Winchester has gathered indicates a regional approach to choosing a hometown. He said people are looking for homes in a three- to five-county area around where they go for work and entertainment.

To draw newcomers, Winchester said communities should play up safety, security and a simpler life and look at ways to keep housing prices low. He said data shows residents moving out of big cities typically bring with them additional tools to strengthen rural communities, like higher income, a bachelor’s degree and a family comprised of several children.

Because new residents are often educated, Winchester said “brain drain” is less of a problem than typically thought. While college-age residents leave, people in their 30s are moving in with their family and people in their 40s and 50s move in for a quieter life. Instead of brain drain, Winchester wants communities to think of these changes as “brain circulation.”

Winchester cautioned that communities should be watchful of how they refer to their community around children in order to maximize the chances they will return home.

“If all your kids hear is that there is nothing here for them, they are never going to be coming back,” Winchester said. “How you talk about your town matters and will matter even more when they are deciding in 20 years whether to come back.”

Dawn Brown, executive director of the Community Foundation, said she and Megan Matthias, the foundation’s community investment manager, hope to use ideas from this presentation to make better grant proposals in the upcoming years. Brown said she hopes others will be able to do the same.

“You guys are going to have a great day of learning and statistics,” Brown said before Winchester’s talk. “Megan and I fly our nerd flags high, so we hope you enjoy the statistics and learn how we can apply them to our community.”

Marion Rotary Club President LaRea Slater, who lives between Matthews and Upland, said for communities that want to see growth, a first step can simply be shopping local and thinking positive.

“When you live in a small town, you have to think about the positive, not just the negative,” Slater said. “One thing that I enjoy doing is supporting the new businesses that come into Upland. When there’s a new nail salon, I get my nails done there. ... You have to support those new businesses.”
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