Annapolis Institute Overview


American outback on the rebound

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, January 20, 1998

Population growth in America’s small towns and rural places — what the demographers call “non-metropolitan” areas — has been “widespread and substantial . . . at the fastest rate in more than 20 years,” according to Loyola University demographer Ken Johnson.

Brad Edmonson, writing in the September 1997 issue ofAmerican Demographics says that “Old and young adults in pursuit of work and play are creating boomtowns far from the maddening crowd.” Tom and Marilyn Ross call the migration to America’s boonies a “silent revolution” by “countrypreneurs” in search of a new life. This is the subject of their new book called Country Bound: Trade Your Business Suit Blues for Blue Jean Dreams, a reader-friendly guide for urban refugees and corporate refugees contemplating a move to a smaller city or town in a rural area.

Whatever name is used — “rural renaissance,” “rural rebound,” “booming boondocks” — America’s outback now contains 53.8 million people, a gain of nearly 3 million since 1990. This number is already twice as large as the non-metro gains during the entire decade of the 1980s — and most of the growth, according to Johnson, is from net in-migration (mostly adults) and not from the natural increase (births over deaths) that has traditionally fueled metropolitan growth.

These new findings confirm a trend spotted by the Center for the New West as early as 1991, when we discovered “Lone Eagles” in the Great Plains region and saw a bright future for many of its small towns and rural areas. Reasons: New telecommunications technology is reducing the tyranny of distance, making it possible for knowledge workers (from writers, analysts, brokers and attorneys, to financial planners and manufacturers reps) to live almost anywhere and stay connected with the outside world.

Downsizing, outsourcing and related workplace changes make it possible for nomads providing business and professional services to make a good living while living away from where they work. Finally, new cultural forces like the “simplicity movement,” “lifestyle downscaling,” and “cashing out” provide the motivation that has sparked what some have called “amenity migration,” much of it to America’s smaller towns and rural areas.

And there are many choices. Of 3,141 counties in the U.S., 837 are metro counties. The remaining 2,304 (or nearly 75 percent) are non-metro counties, where most of our small towns and rural areas are located. Contrary to popular belief, only about 25 percent (556) of the non-metro counties are agricultural counties, where the primary economic activity is farming or ranching. By contrast, more than 20 percent (506) are manufacturing counties and another 23 percent are nearly evenly divided between recreation (285) and government (242), which includes military posts, colleges and universities, prisons and other agencies of government. Nearly 18 percent (381) are commuting counties. Another 15 percent are divided almost evenly between retirement (190) and mining (146) counties. Scattered among all these are 407 low-density “frontier” counties having fewer than six people per square mile.

The strongest growth is in the counties where city people come to play, sleep or retire: All of the retirement counties — 100 percent — are growing, as are 93 percent of the recreational counties and 90 percent of the commuting counties. Production counties are also growing, including 87 percent of the manufacturing counties and half of the mining and agricultural counties. Result: The prosperity of America’s outback continues to be shaped by technology and the cultural force the Rosses call “blue jean dreams.”

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