Small towns struggle to entice Generation Y

Story and video by C.L. Sill, NewsNetNebraska

What do you picture when you think of small towns?

Ask that question to most members of generation Y and the answer will likely sound like a Toby Keith song. Dirt roads, cheap beer. Nothing to do but drive those dirt roads and drink that cheap beer.

Many of today’s 20 somethings just don’t believe small-town America has much to offer. Young people all across the country are abandoning their rural roots and heading for the metaphorically higher ground of urban metros, leaving their dusty hometowns hurting for growth and expansion.

Taylor Hilzer of Lincoln talks about growing up in a small town and what it was like moving to the Capital City:

Many organizations have been formed to try to reverse that trend and bring life back to the rural hub of the country. One such group is the Rural Futures Institute, with headquarters on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus.

“It’s very simple,” explained Chuck Schroeder, executive director of the newly formed institute. “(Young people) are going where they believe the opportunities lie.”

Schroeder is on his first week at the job with the Rural Futures Institute. In an office still full of cardboard boxes and plain white walls, he said the problem of disappearing youth could be seen throughout Nebraska and abroad.

“Quite honestly you can look around the world and see rural communities losing population and many cases declining in the quality of life,” he said.

Doing the numbers

Between 2000 and 2010, 63 of Nebraska’s 93 counties reported a decrease of more than 10 percent in the youth population of people ages 17 and younger, according to youth data from the 2010 census.

The decrease was most dramatic in Nebraska’s 28 most rural counties. The average decrease in youth population in those areas averaged 18 percent. The only counties that saw an increase in youth population in the last decade were Douglas and Lancaster, home to the Omaha and Lincoln  metros.

Likewise, in the 2013 Nebraska Rural Poll, an annual survey conducted by the UNL Department of Agricultural Economics, 5 percent of rural people ages 19 to 29 said they were planning to leave their hometown in the next year. Of the preferred destinations, 50 percent said either the Lincoln or Omaha metro.

county graph

Schroeder noted an earlier Nebraska Rural Poll when addressing one of the major issues in trying to recreate the vibrancy of country counties throughout the state.

In the 1999 poll, more than 85 percent of respondents said they would like to see Nebraska’s small towns continue to thrive. Yet only 35 percent said they expect those small communities to survive the next 20 years, Schroeder noted.

“To say that we have a crisis of confidence in our future would be to say the least,” he said. “This was a poll that was done in 1999, but I think it’s still completely fresh and relevant.”

What’s being done?

Although the Rural Futures Institute is in it’s early stages, Schroeder said he believes it has an opportunity to make a major impact on the small towns in Nebraska.

“The whole idea of the Rural Futures Institute is to create knowledge and actions that will enable rural people find unique pathways to their preferred future,” he said.

The key in doing that is to have a broad approach, according to Schroeder. He said in order to attract young people to rural Nebraska, officials can’t simply focus on the economy or agriculture but must re-brand small towns altogether.

Part of that would be tapping into every community’s unique history. Schroeder said rural towns don’t pay enough attention to their history, something that can bring zeal to a tight-knit community.

“Invariably when you go into those communities you find a history and a cultural underpinning that’s very inspiring,” he said. “To ignore those stories is number one tragic and number two foolish.”

As to the problem of not having anything to do, Schroeder said officials have to make the arts and other entertainment options a major factor.

“I think we can indeed create some pretty cool enriching opportunities,” he said. “But if it’s a matter of building more bars, I’m probably not into that.”

From the horse’s mouth

It seems Schroeder might have his work cut out for him, if two former small-town residents are any indication.

Devin Deluna, who was born and raised in Ogallala, Neb., and came to Lincoln to have the “real college experience,” said his hometown has lost its attraction.

“There’s definitely a lack of jobs for one,” he said. “Overall there’s just a lack of opportunity.”

Deluna is a biochemistry major at UNL and plans to attend medical school. He said the only way he would return to a rural part of Nebraska, or the country for that matter, was if he found a medical practice that would pay for his school.

“That would be probably the only attraction to Ogallala,” he said.

Lexi Giddings of Gibbon, Neb., a town of around 2,000, admits she enjoyed her youth in the small small community.

“I liked growing up there and knowing everybody,” she said. “But I needed to get out.”

She has lived in Lincoln for two years now and said she loves walking the streets and not running into people she knows. When asked if she would ever return to Gibbon, her answer was short and sweet.

“No way,” she said.

Schroeder knows the task ahead is challenging, but no former resident of Gibbon or Ogallala is going to deter his resiliency.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe this was the most important and boldest effort of my lifetime,” he said. “To try to influence the trajectory for rural people and places.”

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