On the future of small towns

On March 23, the cover of the Journal Star read “Rural areas of Nebraska losing fewer people.” This bleak headline really misses the good news all Nebraskans can celebrate. Experts haven’t been able to pinpoint an explanation for this phenomenon. Nebraska Community Foundation believes we can.

With telecommunications making it possible for people to live and work wherever we choose, demographics in many rural areas are stabilizing and dozens of hometowns can celebrate an increase of young families.

Last year, 173 babies were born in the O’Neill hospital, the highest number in decades. This is a direct result of the more than 400 individuals and young families that have moved to Holt County in the last few years. I know many of these returners and newcomers. Some have jobs related to agriculture but a significant portion brought their jobs with them or created their own.

All over Nebraska, small towns are experiencing success with people attraction and their own mini “baby-booms.” The common theme in these places is community leadership being intentional about their future. They’re combining vision, resources and talent to create magnetic communities in the 21st century.

NCF surveyed 6,000 Nebraska middle and high school students about their perceptions of their hometowns. Only 12 percent said their town is too small to return to and the majority picture themselves living there in the future. However, headlines like this persist and perpetuate the narrative that rural places are doomed to fail. Headlines like this place limitations on Nebraska kids’ dreams and attempt to convince them that the only way to succeed is to leave. This is a disservice to our state and our people, especially our youth.

Community success is not preordained. It requires constant attention by many people, committed to relationships, well-being, opportunity and a hopeful narrative about our future.

Jeff Yost, president and CEO, Nebraska Community Foundation, Lincoln