A new report from the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development highlights just some of the factors behind greater Minnesota’s surprising resurgence.
Funded in part by the state of Minnesota, the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank is overseen by a Board of Directors composed of 15 members. 13 of those are chosen by the governor, with the remaining two chosen by leaders of the State House and State Senate. Each year, the Center releases a comprehensive report on the economic and demographic characteristics of greater Minnesota. It breaks down trends within greater Minnesota’s regions, and how they stack up against each other and the seven-county metro.
As a supplement to the report, an online tool called the “rural atlas” is regularly maintained, with an extensive collection of interactive charts and maps that break down the data showcased in the report in a variety of ways.
Recently, the atlas was updated with charts that show demographic and economic shifts over time. However, the most recent data in both the atlas and report provides only somewhat limited insight, as it was collected pre COVID-19.
Nonetheless, much of the data and report showcases clear trends, according to CRPD research associate Kelly Asche. However, each individual region faces its own challenges, and “micropolitan” areas in each region face much different challenges than more rural areas.
According to the report, the most urban areas have seen the largest population growth in recent years, owing largely to international migration. The state’s most rural areas, particularly in western Minnesota, are facing stagnant or declining populations.
Thanks in part to their location along I-35 and proximity to the metro, Rice and Steele counties transcend the divide somewhat. They comprise their own “micropolitan areas” but under the Census’s widest definition, are actually considered part of the Twin Cities metro.
In general, most counties are in between the two extremes. According to a four-tier system developed by the state demographer’s office, just 14 greater Minnesota counties are considered entirely rural and just six entirely urban, with the remaining 60 falling in the middle.
Most of these “counties in the middle” are looking at growth as well, but not to the degree that the state’s most urban areas are. The CRPD’s report noted a strong connection between larger immigrant populations and higher projected growth.
While it may lack the hustle and bustle, greater Minnesota offers a lower overall cost of living across the board. According to the CRPD’s numbers, housing costs are one-third less in greater Minnesota and childcare costs are half.
That is, housing is affordable in rural communities if people can find it. Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson was quick to point out that in Faribault and many other communities, that’s easier said than done.
“The sooner we can get quality, affordable homeownership opportunities on the market, the better,” Johnson said. “It will be very difficult for us to prosper without that.”
In St. Peter, Community Development Director Russ Wille said that a recent rental market study showed the vacancy rate under 2%. A 2017 rental market study in Faribault showed an even lower vacancy rate, though several projects are in the works that could change that.
“It doesn’t offer much choice,” Wille said. “If you want a three-bedroom ground level with parking close to downtown, you may end up having to settle for a two-bedroom with street parking on the north side of town.”
“My dollar goes farther”
While housing may be a challenge, jobs are readily available in greater Minnesota. The CRPD’s numbers show that while the median wage of those jobs remains less than the Twin Cities, the gap has closed notably over the last decade.
At just over $30,000, Rice County’s cost of living is nearly $4,000 more than Steele County and higher than most greater Minnesota counties. In order to meet that cost of living, a full-time worker would need to make at least $14.65 an hour, compared to $13.23 in Steele.
While Rice County as a whole is on the more expensive side, Southwest and Southeast Minnesota as a whole are roughly 15% cheaper to live in than the metro. That makes a huge difference, and one that often offsets the lower wages of the Twin Cities.
“I think this provides evidence for what a lot of people are feeling when they say, ‘I get paid less, but it feels like my dollar goes farther and it’s not quite as hard to make ends meet,’” said Asche.
That’s not to say the economic advantage is consistent across the state. Asche was quick to note that comparing the median wage for each occupation to the cost of living has its limits, as certain jobs are particularly concentrated in the Twin Cities.
In particular, many northern Minnesota counties have a disproportionate number of part-time or low wage jobs in the tourism sector compared to other parts of the state, driving their wages down. At the same time, the cost of living in the region is somewhat higher.
Given the popularity of its lakes region, Rice County has one of the largest tourism sectors in the region. The industry is one of Minnesota’s largest and has been growing in recent years, but has been decimated by COVID-19.
On the whole, the state’s workforce is relatively consistent with education and health services as the top employment sectors. However, rural counties have a disproportionate number of government and agriculture jobs while the Twin Cities has many business services positions.
Thanks in part to the lower cost of living, the CRPD’s report highlighted that the “brain drain” has partially reversed and become a “brain gain,” with rural counties adding notable numbers of new residents, particularly those in their 30s and 40s.
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Community Vitality has done its own extensive research on the issue. During the Thursday chat, Research Fellow Ben Winchester released the preliminary results of a survey analyzing the trend.
In addition to lower taxes and a lower cost of living, many survey respondents cited their desire for a slower pace of life, additional recreational opportunities, quality schools, and a safe and secure environment in which to raise a family. Notably, Winchester’s study found that about three-quarters of these movers are “transplants,” with no background in the community they’re moving into. Many bring with them relatively high levels of education and economic status.
St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce President Ed Lee, who grew up in the Twin Cities and went to Minnesota State University, Mankato for college, said he knew he wanted to settle in a greater Minnesota community with a mix of amenities and a rural quality of life.
Lee particularly cited safety and security as a key portion of quality of life in greater Minnesota. With the low crime rate of rural communities comes a strong level of comfort and security with spending time in the neighborhood, even at night.
“To me and to a lot of people around town, safety is such a big deal,” he said. “How cool is it that kids can ride their bikes around town. We feel safe walking at sundown, walking at night.”
At the same time, Lee noted that St. Peter, like Faribault and Owatonna, offers plenty of basic amenities and is within reasonable driving distance of all of the recreational opportunities offered in the Twin Cities metro area.
“That is one of the big strengths of communities like ours,” said Owatonna Community Development Director Troy Klecker. “We have an ability to show people a different way of life, a different pace, but still offer the amenities they expect.”
Much of southern Minnesota may be within commuting distance of the Twin Cities as well as smaller economic hubs in Rochester and Mankato, St. Peter’s Wille said that telecommuting has helped to reshape the considerations of many.
While the “hustle and bustle” might appeal to some, Wille said that he’s not surprised that so many city dwellers are interested in leaving behind the big city if given the opportunity by their employers.
“I can understand trying to get out of a metro area. Stop and go traffic isn’t really my thing,” he said with a laugh.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 26 million Americans, roughly 16% of the total workforce, worked remotely at least part of the time. That total exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, peaking at roughly half of all Americans working from home.
Under current technology, that total is not sustainable and has already receded, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institute. However, the authors of the report expect the trend toward telework to be intensified by the pandemic.
According to the Pew Research Center, just 7% of U.S. workers were given the opportunity to work from home before the pandemic, although 40% worked in occupations that potentially could have been done from home.
That hesitance to switch on the part of many businesses may have been in part due to the inconvenience of having to make significant technological investments and train employees to use new devices and software, according to Brookings.
The “telecommuting revolution” could have major impacts on rural communities. According to a survey conducted by Seattle-based real estate brokerage Redfin, as many as half of city residents would be interested in moving if they didn’t have to commute to the office.
Owatonna Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier said that with more flexibility in the workforce will come greater competition between cities looking to attract residents with a high quality of life and low cost of living.
While technology will bring new opportunities to lure new residents and businesses alike, Meier said the Chamber’s focus will continue to be on bringing new businesses to town in the brick and mortar, because it’s the surest way to add jobs and residents.
“We like to have jobs in Owatonna because there’s a higher likelihood they will live in Owatonna,” he said. “But with this pandemic more businesses will realize that telecommuting works for them, and people will choose where they want to live.”
Vegetables are grown, vendors are out and customers are welcome to stop at their favorite booths at the Faribault Farmers Market this summer — with a few guidelines in place.
Red arrows on the sidewalk tell customers to walk in one direction, from north to south on the east side of Central Park. Wash stations on the corners and in the middle of the block provide a place for hand washing. And vendors, who typically take up both sides of the sidewalk along the perimeter of Central Park, now sell their goods on the outskirts of the sidewalk only.
Russ and Donna Bauer, who coordinate the Faribault Farmers Market annually, have kept an eye on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Rice County Public Health guidelines for holding farmers markets during the coronavirus pandemic. The protocols have been working well for the most part, said Donna Bauer. Customers seem to know what they want, and by this point in the pandemic, social distancing is nothing new.
“I don’t see our business has slowed down at all,” she said.
About eight vendors typically set up stations on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 5 p.m., but Donna anticipates more as the summer goes on. Saturdays are busier from 7 a.m. to noon, when closer to 35 vendors sell their products.
Starting July 11, crafters were allowed to bring their products to the market for the first time this summer. Crafts were forbidden at first because customers are more likely to linger at craft tables and take a while to choose what they want, Donna explained. Now, guests may touch products at their own risk.
The silver lining of the unusual summer is that the growing season is the best Donna has seen in the past three to four years. Rain happens at “the right time,” and veggie growers seem happy with the outcome, she said. If there’s any drawback, it’s that hungry deer manage to find their vegetables.
Kohlrabi and cabbage are two of the biggest draws to the Bauer stand. They’re currently waiting for their onions to grow and expect sweet corn at their stand in the next three to four weeks while other vendors may have corn for sale in the next two weeks.
John Kue, a local vendor who began selling vegetables at the Faribault Farmers Market four years ago, said his potatoes, peas, beets and green beans are his best sellers. Kue said he’s seen less traffic at the markets this year, probably because of COVID-19, but that hasn’t slowed down his sales. In the coming weeks, he hopes to have tomatoes and squash at his stand. So far, he said the growing season has been “too hot, too cold or too wet.”
Local vendors Dennis and Kathy Rinehart grow their own tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, watermelon and green beans and also pick strawberries, raspberries and blackberries to use for their jams. Kathy began selling embroidered hand towels in addition to edible goods, per the adjusted craft regulation.
Mary Lou Blenkush and Bradley Mattson set up their stand Wednesday and sold almost everything they brought. Before packing up, just a couple of Blenkush’s organic flower arrangements remained as well as agates she collected throughout the years.
“I decided to sell [the agates] and educate others about the state gemstone,” she said. “Most of them are from Rice County.”
The man accused of shooting a Waseca police officer in January entered two guilty pleas Thursday, both attempted murder of a peace officer, an admission that’s expected to send him to prison for decades.
Tyler Robert Janovsky, 37, of Waseca, entered the pleas per an agreement with the Waseca County Attorney’s Office. He pleaded guilty to one count of the attempted murder of Waseca Officer Arik Matson and one count of attempted murder of Waseca officers Andrew Harren and Sgt. Timothy Schroeder in relation to a Jan. 6 incident that left Matson critically injured from a gunshot to the head.
All other charges linked to the shootings will be dismissed as a result of the plea agreement. Waseca County Attorney Rachel Cornelius has also agreed to drop a first-degree manufacturing meth charge from a separate drug case filed in December. Also part of the agreement: the federal government won’t pursue drug charges linked to the December case.
According to the plea agreement, Janovksy will be sentenced to 35 years in prison. Sentencing is set for Sept. 18.
During Thursday’s hearing, Janovksy told Judge Christine Long that on the night of Jan. 6 he was aware that officers were looking for him as he hid behind a house. Janovksy said that he went on the roof of a Third Avenue SE home and shot at Matson with the intent to kill him before firing at Schroeder and Harren with the same intent.
According to Cornelius, she didn’t learn that Janovsky would accept the plea agreement until the hearing, though her office knew it was a possibility.
Long pushed the sentencing date back to accommodate the anticipated Sept. 10 release of Matson from his current care facility in Nebraska. Cornelius said that if Matson’s not released prior to that date that she’ll ask for a continuance so that he is available to make a victim impact statement.
According to the criminal complaint, Janovsky, who was on supervised release for a 2010 drug conviction, had a warrant out for his arrest at the time of the shooting. According to court records, police found materials for a potential methamphetamine lab, as well as drugs and a loaded handgun at his Waseca residence in December.
On the night of the incident, four members of the Waseca Police Department — including Matson, Schroeder and Harren — were dispatched to the 900 block of Third Avenue SE in Waseca following a report a suspicious person with a flashlight in nearby backyards. Capt. Kris Markeson was also present at the scene.
Officers first made contact with Janovsky the night of Jan. 6 on the balcony of the home where he then fled to the garage roof before circling to the front of the house, according to the complaint. It is there that he fired his gun at the officers, striking Matson in the head. Janovsky was in turn shot twice, sustaining non-life threatening injuries. According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Matson and Schroeder fired their weapons during the incident.
Janovsky said in court Thursday that he initiated the gunfire.
Matson remains in a rehabilitation facility. Last week, his wife Megan posted an update on his CaringBridge page: “His touch, taste, smell and hearing are all at different levels, some more intense than others used to be. He is able to walk on his own at times for short distances (never alone). He often finds himself needing the help of an assistant more than not.”
At a special meeting on Wednesday evening, Bridgewater Township’s Board of Supervisors tapped Andy Ebling to fill the spot left by the untimely death of his father, Gary.
The younger Ebling will serve on the township board until next year, when four of the five supervisor positions will be up for election. Only the seat currently held by Kathleen Kopseng, who was elected this March, won’t be up for a vote.
The elder Ebling died July 4 in an accident that sent the local community into a state of shock and mourning. Rice County Sheriff’s deputies found Ebling, 71, about 4:30 p.m. after responding to a call that a tractor had rolled down an embankment. The caller reported there was a man trapped under an implement with severe injuries. When deputies arrived at the scene Ebling was deceased, according to Sheriff Troy Dunn.
The owner of Retail Design Services, the elder Ebling was a successful small businessman with major corporate clients across the country — but his passion for the residents of Bridgewater Township often matched or even exceeded his entrepreneurial zeal.
He was first elected to the township board in the 2000s and returned to the board in 2013. During his tenure, the board approved a 30-year long annexation agreement with Dundas, and first began and then took over its own planning and zoning.
At the time of his death, the Gary Ebling served as the board’s chair and oversaw township road maintenance. Although the township’s road budget was smaller than some of its neighbors, he was praised for helping to keep Bridgewater’s roads among the region’s best.
To succeed Ebling as board chair, the board’s other members tapped Glen Castore, the only other board member with lengthy experience. Like Ebling, Castore is on his second tenure on the board, and expects to seek his fourth nonconsecutive term in March.
In addition to Ebling, three other candidates stepped forward to succeed Ebling in his role on the township: Mary Franz, Brad Phfaning and Janalee Cooper. Unlike Andy Ebling, all three had previously sought seats on the board.
With Castore leading the discussion, Supervisors diligently considered the four candidates based on five factors: connection to agriculture, road experience, board experience, township experience and a willingness to make a long-term commitment to serve on the board.
While Cooper ranked well based on the board’s five qualifications, her lack of ties to the ag community gave the board pause, especially given the relative lack of ties to the ag community among the other supervisors.
Andy Ebling also rose to the top, with supervisors particularly appreciative of his ties to the township’s ag community. Though Ebling is not a farmer himself, his family owns a sizable amount of land in the township.
“I think we would begin to feel some difficulties in the township if there’s no ag representation,” Castore said. “It’s such a big part of who we are in the township.”
While Ebling lacks direct experience on the township board, he’s been deeply involved in the community in other ways. That appealed to Kopseng, who felt the board could use a fresh, youthful perspective.
“He has fresh ideas, but also experience,” she said. “I think that would be a good fit.”
Andy Ebling said that he had talked with his father about potentially running for the board himself one day. While that time came quite a bit sooner than he would have imagined, he said he would do everything possible to build on Gary Ebling’s legacy.
“I don’t think there’s much more that a person could hope for than to try to build on their parent’s legacy,” he said.
Ebling promised to focus on road maintenance and do his best to stand up for the township’s ag community. In general, he also pledged to be “the voice of reason and common sense” on the township board.
Andy Ebling also expressed interest in pursuing increased powers for Bridgewater Township, including possible eventual incorporation. Though strongly opposed in his efforts by neighboring Northfield and Dundas, Gary Ebling pushed hard to see Bridgewater pursue incorporation.
“It’s something that is worth exploring,” he said. “I think it could well be in the best interests of residents of the township.”