Rural Challenges: The Decline of Small Town Main Street

There are several challenges facing rural North Dakota. Over a series of posts on ND xPlains, we’ve highlighted some of those challenges including what may help mitigate some of the issues. Full admission, this entry is a little more difficult to solve. Small town main streets have been on the decline for decades. What, if anything, can be done to revitalize main drag?

A recent poll released by One Country Project and American Federation of Teachers which was conducted by Change America, found 78% of North Dakotans believed small town main streets were on the decline. The results of the poll shouldn’t be a surprise. All a person needs to do is jump in their pick up and go for a cruise.

Unfortunately, it is too common to drive down main drag and see empty lots or vacant store fronts of what was once the main business corridor of a small town. Often it isn’t due to a lack of effort in the community. It is tough to pin-point what exactly the cause of these closures have been. The economics of making a profit is certainly a top factor. It is why we are seeing rural grocery stores close at an alarming rate. But there is more to it.

Populations in small towns have dwindled. Younger generations are moving to bigger communities. Instead of a family operated farmstead every other mile, bigger operations have expanded exponentially. There are fewer farms tiling the land and with advancement in technology, fewer hands are needed to get the job done. Online shopping and big box retailers down the road have impacted mom-and-pop stores. You probably already know all of this if you’re from a small town.

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The discussion needs to turn to what – if anything – can be done to turn around the decline of small town main street? What is currently being done doesn’t seem to be working. For example, Doug Burgum recognized and campaigned on a “Main Street Initiative.” Yet, years later small town North Dakota isn’t seeing the initiative accomplishing much for their community. Perhaps it is why Burgum’s associates are polling North Dakotans on what they think of the intiative as he gears up for re-election.

Leaders from small towns who have looked into the “Main Street Initiative” have commented on my KFGO radio show the focus is on what works for bigger communities like Fargo (where the Governor is personally invested), Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Minot. It doesn’t translate to small town needs. What good is “walkability” if you don’t have a grocery store or other business to walk to?

No doubt, there isn’t an easy solution. What a town lacks at one intersection of highway can be drastically different from the needs of the community thirty miles down the road. Yet, there may be broad areas the state can consider changes and investments.

I’ll leave you with one observation I’ve had over the years. The busiest time of year for many of these small town businesses is during hunting season. Hunting and fishing brings in business. Perhaps there are avenues North Dakota could consider to boost those industries and tourism in general across North Dakota. What is the Outdoor Heritage Fund up to? In the past, this debate has turned heated due to politics and special interests. I think it is worthy to revisit. What would you like to see done for small town main street?

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