National Public Radio produced a very interesting story a week ago chronicling what a professor at Iowa State University calls the "Shrink Smart project."
According to NPR, Kimberly Zarecor, associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University and her colleague, Dave Peters, are looking at ways rural, shrinking communities can thrive even as their population bases get smaller. The secret? Instead of spending money trying to bring newcomers in, focus on making life better for those who already call the community home. Doing so, over time, secures resiliency, encourages those in the community to stay put, and also in many cases can encourage those who once left to return.
This is a very relative concept for many small towns in Eastern Kentucky and, for that matter, the vast majority of rural America. We told you in this space three weeks ago about the Pew Research Center's findings that rural counties now are home to a smaller share of the nation’s prime-age workers than in 2000. Rural counties continue to lose prime-age workers, while urban and suburban areas gained them. Urban areas saw a 12 percent gain in employed individuals 25 to 54, while rural areas saw an 11 percent drop in employed residents in the primes of their working lives.
The Daily Independent also produced a comprehensive report last September on the negative population trends in the region. Among them are findings that, in the last five years, Boyd County, population 49,542 in April 2010, is estimated to have since lost 1,406 people. The vast majority of that is attributable to net migration out of the county. If the numbers are accurate, the loss represents a nearly 3 percent loss in population in the county from 2010 to 2016. The numbers are also declining in Carter County, according to census numbers. Carter County is believed to have lost 672 residents since 2010, representing a 2.4 percent decrease. In Greenup County the population numbers dropped at a rate comparable to Boyd’s — a loss of 1,021, representing a 2.8 percent decline in population.
One doesn't need a Ph.D in statistics to understand the threats these numbers present. A declining tax base. Fewer workers. Both are real dilemmas for an area that is on the upswing recently in regards to the local economy with Braidy Industries announcing big plans for the future at EastPark Industrial Center.
Our population is aging. So how do we, as the Iowa State professors put it, shrink smart? Focus on quality of life. The researchers, according to NPR, point to Sac City Iowa as a model for rural American communities in that it focuses on good government services, efficient use of taxpayer dollars, a stellar healthcare system and clean, livable spaces.
This is why recent events led by Build Ashland -- and with help from the city and others -- to extend the walking trail along the Ohio River are so important. Another great example is the leadership demonstrated in bringing a top notch professional tennis tournament to Ashland in July.
Community pride, beautification, civic engagement and quality of life are very important to small towns like ours. It is true of small places in Carter, Greenup and Boyd counties, and it is true for rural communities across the nation.