Rural Minnesotans less optimistic about economy

Bob Kell and Mark Mueller-Dahl
Bob Kell, left, agripreneur training director of the Rural Enterprise Center, and volunteer Mark Mueller-Dahl build a chicken coop for Victor Torres, a recent graduate of a agrarian business planning course for Latinos.
Alex Kolyer for MPR, file

Rural Minnesotans are less optimistic about the economy than people in the Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas of the state, according to a new study by the Blandin Foundation.

The Blandin Foundation's Rural Pulse survey, to be released today, found that while about 40 percent of respondents in urban areas thought there aren't enough local job opportunities, 56 percent of rural Minnesotans thought so.

"Recovery hasn't made it to all people," said Kathleen Annette, president of the Grand Rapids-based foundation. "And there are those in rural communities that have less optimism. And those are primarily those that are making less than $35,000 a year, and they're older than the age of 35."

The Blandin Foundation, a funder of Minnesota Public radio, conducted telephone interviews with more than 1,000 residents of rural Minnesota between March 7-15. Between March 19 and April 1, it conducted interviews with 549 residents of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, as well as other cities with populations of more than 35,000. That includes St. Cloud, Rochester, Mankato, Duluth and Moorhead.

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Its latest survey -- which for the first time includes the urban areas -- shows that demand for living-wage jobs far outweighs all other concerns in the state, including education and health care.

Among those who agree that the post-recession economy is still a big problem in greater Minnesota is Mark Bublitz, director of crisis services at Northern Pines Mental Health Center in Brainerd, Minn., a town of about 13,600 that saw the highest unemployment in the state at the height of the recession.

"I think there are a lot of people that are exceptionally stressed," Bublitz said. "Those people that have weathered the storm financially and kind of employment-wise are feeling a little less pressure than they were before. But there's a lot of folks that haven't weathered that, that are still living check to check."

"This area is very homogeneous and we don't see a lot of other cultures being expressed in the community."

Most survey participants gave high marks to their quality of life. Nearly four in five Minnesotans believe their community is a vibrant place to live and work, and 70 percent of rural Minnesotans expect their lives will improve in the next five years.

Wayne Kangas of Hibbing, Minn., is among more than a third of rural survey respondents who are concerned about the availability of cultural and arts opportunities. The findings represent a 10-point drop in arts and culture satisfaction from the last survey in 2010.

Kangas, a 27-year-old financial adviser, said limited arts and cultural offerings might discourage people from moving to his region.

"This area is very homogeneous and we don't see a lot of other cultures being expressed in the community," he said. "We are a pretty blue-collared area as a whole up here, not only in Hibbing, but across the Iron Range ... And I think it's important to bring more and more culture to our rural areas, because it's just important for the development of our communities and the development of our youth."

The survey also shows political clout is a concern in rural Minnesota. A third of people say they believe lawmakers pay less attention to the needs of rural Minnesota than to those in the metro area.

That includes 63-year-old Gretchen Ramlo, a retired businesswoman from Austin, Minn. Ramlo said she's satisfied with her local elected officials, but believes the Legislature as a whole isn't as responsive.

"I think that oftentimes our policy makers forget about rural Minnesota and outstate areas," Ramlo said. "Very rarely do they come out and have their meetings here, talk to us ... I think the majority of the people think about the metro area and very rarely us."

Rural advocates say Blandin's latest survey provides another set of useful data that speak to rural concerns.

The study suggests that rural communities need to work more closely together to face shared challenges, said Brad Finstead, president of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, based in St. Peter.

"We're not in a world where we can survive just trying to protect and grow our own little corner of the rural part of Minnesota," Finstead said. "We need to think more globally, think more regionally, more collaboratively, as we work on different issues that advance rural Minnesota."

The Blandin Foundation has conducted four Rural Pulse surveys since 1998. Additional information that focuses on members of racial and ethnic minorities in the state will be released this summer.