ACROSS THE WEST, more young people are moving out of rural communities than in. In every decade since 1980, most rural counties in the 11 Western states lost 20-somethings, without an influx of other young adults to make up for the loss, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau migration data by the Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics.
A few managed to attract young people with the lure of some nearby metro area like Albuquerque or Denver, or a roaring tourism industry like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but the undeniable trend has been a slow march to cities, where, especially in the West, jobs and people are increasingly concentrated.
In New Mexico, all but two rural counties have lost far more 20-somethings than they’ve gained since 1990. Tiny Harding and Catron counties led the state, losing people in their 20s at the fastest rate during the early 2000s. Only Roosevelt and Curry counties attracted people in their 20s during that time. The trend for 30-somethings in New Mexico is more mixed; more than 200 people in their 30s moved to Union County in northeast New Mexico since 2000, for instance, but hundreds of 30-somethings moved out of Socorro and Roosevelt counties.
This exodus is not just a Western problem; the USDA’s Economic Research Service says a record number of rural counties across the U.S. lost population since 2010.
It’s a function both of young people seeking education and trying to keep up with a changing job landscape, said Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics who tracks migration trends across rural counties in the West.
Not only has mechanization reduced the number of people needed to work traditional rural jobs like farming and mining, Lawson said, but new jobs haven’t emerged to replace them. Jobs in the fastest-growing industries in the West – health care, real estate and tech – are cropping up mostly in densely populated areas.
If viability for small towns in the rural West depends in part on cultivating the next generation of local workers and leaders, or on a town’s ability to attract new people to fill those roles, understanding why young people choose to move is particularly important. “You really need a representation from all these different life stages,” Lawson said. “When (a community) gets too lopsided on one end or another, you really lose some of the economic opportunity and the contributions that these different ages bring.”
Attracting a new generation of young people could be one answer to reversing the slow bleed of population in some rural places, though simply attracting young people isn’t a silver bullet. Bozeman succeeds at attracting young 20-somethings for college, for instance, but the town can’t hold onto them for long, Lawson said. People in their 30s continue to leave.
So, where is the young West? Where are young people actually choosing to live, and what’s drawing them there? Here’s a look at a few rural communities of all sizes – from tiny Camas County, Idaho, to booming Franklin County, Washington – that are attracting young people in surprising ways.
Archuleta County, Colorado
By the numbers: Population, 1990: 5,508; 2000: 9,883; 2010: 12,056
What’s interesting: Like most rural Western counties, more 20-somethings have moved out of Archuleta County than in since 1990. But the county has attracted young families and people in their 30s – as well as retirees – and was one of the few isolated Western counties where jobs grew more than 10 percent in the last decade.
They say: Hot springs are one of the strongest draws to Pagosa Springs, Archuleta County’s biggest town, which has earned a reputation as an affordable and diverse tourist community, said Mary Jo Coulehan, executive director for the local chamber of commerce. During winter, nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area is one of the area’s major employers, but this town isn’t just for snowbirds. The local hospital recently completed a major expansion, Coulehan said; school enrollment has increased each of the past three years; and several companies have planted new roots, including Voormi, a high-end outdoor clothing manufacturer, and Skywerx, a small internet company. “What’s the biggest barrier to economic improvement? With young couples come families and (a need for) housing,” Coulehan said. Right now, the county’s critical issues are housing affordability and lack of childcare, she said. The county also doesn’t have the broadband internet or cellular service it needs, she said, so at least for Archuleta County, there’s more work ahead.
Bent County, Colorado
By the numbers: Population, 1990: 5,226; 2000: 6,034; 2010: 6,509
What’s interesting here: Bent is one of the only counties in largely agricultural eastern Colorado that is actually gaining young adults instead of losing them. Though more children have moved out of the community than in during the early 2000s, the county attracted people in their 20s and 30s – an outlier among eastern Colorado, where young people are generally moving out in droves, not in.
They say: Agriculture may be the biggest historical industry in Bent County, Colorado, but today incarceration is the single biggest employer, said Kim MacDonnell, a Bent County Commissioner and former local economic development director. Roughly 240 people — a third of them from Bent County — are employed at the local medium security correctional facility, which opened in the mid-1990s and has doubled in size, today housing 1,400 men. A new pig farm, too, contributed to growth over the last 20 years, and today makes up a significant amount of the tax base, MacDonnell said. The county creatively weathered the closure of a Veterans Affairs hospital by working with a state agency to turn the old campus into a supportive living facility for more than 200 homeless people recovering from addiction. About 60 employees work at the facility, and several graduates of the two-year program have stayed in the community upon completion, MacDonnell said; one of them started a business repairing bicycles.
Broadwater County, Montana
By the numbers: Population, 1990: 3,366; 2000: 4,360; 2010: 5,626
What’s interesting here: A slow trickle of 30-somethings have moved to rural Montana since 1990, with some of the strongest influx in Broadwater County.
They say: Kelly Flynn, a rancher and Republican state representative from Broadwater County, says most of his county’s population growth can be attributed to growth in nearby Helena and Bozeman, not necessarily to better job prospects in Broadwater County. “We’ve had good growth, but we don’t have new economic opportunities,” Flynn said. “The farms and ranches have gotten bigger over the last 20 years, but that hasn’t translated into more employees.” Instead, the population change comes from major new subdivisions that have cropped up in the northern end of the county, near Helena, the state capitol, and in the southern end, near growing Bozeman. Housing in Broadwater County is cheaper than in pricey Bozeman, Flynn said, and that’s drawing new people in.
Camas County, Idaho
By the numbers: Population, 1990: 734; 2000: 984; 2010: 1,111
What’s interesting here: This small community has grown steadily since 1990. While 20-somethings and elderly people alike have generally moved out, the county has continually attracted young families and 30-somethings.
They say: Attracting kids and 30-somethings is not the typical trajectory for a ski economy like Camas’. Still, since 1990, people in their 30s and their young children have slowly but steadily migrated to Camas County, where Bruce Willis once owned the local ski resort and where locals say land is more affordable than nearby Sun Valley. “We do tend to lose our young people, mainly because there aren’t a lot of job opportunities,” said Julia Oxarango-Ingram, a director at Southern Idaho Rural Development. A handful of local food enterprises have launched recently in the region, including artisan creameries producing goat and sheep milk cheese products, as well as a brewery in the county’s biggest town, Fairfield. Oxarango-Ingram wants to encourage more foodie growth, so she’s talking with farmers, universities and economic development officials in the agriculture-heavy Basque region in Spain and France to explore the idea of a student exchange program or business development exchange. “They’ve got a lot of established technique and cutting-edge technology because they’ve been doing local agriculture for a very long time,” she said.
Franklin County, Washington
By the numbers: Population, 1990: 38,543; 2000: 49,852; 2010: 79,132
What’s interesting here: Franklin County has managed to attract both 20-somethings and 30-somethings as part of the growth of eastern Washington’s Tri-Cities area. Today, Franklin County is 53 percent Hispanic, and its biggest city, Pasco, has doubled in size from 34,000 people to 70,000 since 2000.
They say: “As a community, I think we’re coming into our own,” said Luke Hallowell, executive director of the Downtown Pasco Development Authority. The area around Franklin County is home to a large national laboratory, a growing hospital and a new AutoZone distribution center that promises several hundred new jobs and a $10 million payroll. Houses are affordable, Hallowell said, as what was once farmland in this historically agricultural community is continuously converted to subdivisions. “I think many people are saying, ‘It’s great to live in Seattle or Portland, but you spend half your monthly income trying to pay your rent and mortgage,’” he said. “I think it provides a level of freedom.”
Iron County, Utah
By the numbers: Population, 1990: 21,137; 2000: 33,717; 2010: 46,267
What’s interesting here: People in their 20s and people over 65 have flocked to Iron County in the past few decades, though more people in their 30s are moving out than in. Interestingly, more children have moved into Iron County than out in recent years.
They say: When the U.S. steel market crashed in the 1980s, this former iron-mining community rapidly went from being one of the wealthiest counties in Utah to being one of the poorest, said Danny Stewart, economic development director for Iron County’s biggest town, Cedar City. The economy remained depressed for several years, Stewart said, but the county eventually started recruiting manufacturing companies. With a rail line connecting the town to a Union Pacific mainline, direct access to an Interstate highway, a local university and an airport with twice-daily jet service to Salt Lake City, the county was poised to draw small- to medium-sized manufacturing companies. Today, it’s a hub for visitors traveling to and from nearby Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. Another perk? For more than 50 years, the town has been the site of the renowned Utah Shakespeare Festival, which draws people young and old and contributes, according to a recent national study, more than $62 million to the local economy – not counting ticket sales.
Latah County, Idaho
By the numbers: Population, 1990: 31,385; 2000: 34,800; 2010: 37,278
What’s interesting here: A significant number of 20-somethings moved to Latah County between 1990 and 2009, while more people in their 30s moved out than in. Unlike much of the rest of the rural West, however, it’s not attracting older people over the age of 65.
They say: Christine Frei, executive director of the Clearwater Economic Development Association, points straight to the University of Idaho when asked about the growth in 20-somethings. More than 9,000 students attend the university’s campus in Moscow which, at roughly 25,000 people, is Latah County’s biggest city. Bicycle paths now criss-cross town, and it has a robust public transit system for its size, Frei said. Also, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, a company based in nearby Pullman, Washington, employs 1,600 people in jobs that range from factory-line workers to engineers, and has expanded multiple times, Frei said. But it doesn’t take long to see places where the county struggles, and how county-level trendlines mask hardship in the outlying communities, which are timber and agriculture-dependent. Both industries have been impacted by automation, requiring fewer hands to produce the same amount of lumber, and by lack of access to timber, Frei said. “You can paint a rosy picture, but you don’t have to go very deep to say, ‘OK, it’s not quite as rosy as it looks for the county,’” she said.
This article is part of the State of Change project, a multi-newsroom examination of the challenge of building resilient rural communities — and what some in New Mexico are doing right.