In Milan, Micronesian immigrants add vibrancy

Syttende Mai parade
Among those joining in the Syttende Mai parade in Milan, Minn., are recent Micronesian immigrants. May 18, 2013.
Ackerman + Gruber for MPR News

If there's no single formula to keep small rural communities vibrant, tiny Milan about three hours west of the Twin Cities proves it.

Its population was down to 250 in the 2000 census, but that was about the time Michael Elias and family members arrived from their South Pacific homeland.

Elias says they came because of the good schools, jobs and because their island nation faces a climate change reality.

Part of 'Fighting for an American Countryside'

"The water level is coming up."

Eventually, more than 150 people from Micronesia settled in Milan, reversing the town's decades' long population decline. The population has grown to 350, and the town is one of those spotlighted in the MPR News eBook "Fighting for an American Countryside."

Micronesia has a Compact of Free Association with the United States, meaning its islanders aren't U. S. citizens but by treaty can come and go as they like.

Family in Milan
Micronesian families moving to Milan has been a primary source of rejuvenation.
Ackerman + Gruber for MPR News

Years ago, a Milan resident was a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia, and he stayed in touch and encouraged Elias and others to move, making Milan an unusual example of how immigrants can bolster populations of Minnesota towns.

But in Milan, immigrants aren't the only story. In many parts of rural Minnesota, the population has been declining for decades, but there are interesting exceptions among some age groups.

Dawn Hegland, director of the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission in Appleton just up the highway from Milan, said there has been an uptick of residents in their 30s and 40s moving to the prairie towns of western Minnesota.

"They're choosing to move here because it's a slower pace of life, there's no traffic congestion, it's generally very safe, there's an excellent school system," Hegland said.

Home values and rental rates are around half the statewide average and much lower than in the Twin Cities.

Home prices in the five counties around Milan -- Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine -- range from $81,000 to $97,000, far less than the state median of $206,000. Monthly rents range from $447 to just over $500 across the five counties compared to a statewide median of about $760.

But incomes are lower, too. The five counties have median household incomes of about $45,000, well below the state figure of $57,200.

That makes high health care costs one of the challenges in Milan and places like it.

A 2007 University of Minnesota health access survey showed the rate of uninsured rural Minnesota residents is higher than in the Twin Cities with two exceptions, southwestern Minnesota and the west central region including Milan, where the rate is the same.

A lot of rural residents cobble together a living with part-time work, jobs that typically don't come with health insurance.

Part-time work accounted for 38 percent of the job openings in the region including Milan, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development figures from 2012 show. Only 22 percent of the part-time openings offered some kind of health care coverage.

Ann Thompson
She has dedicated herself to revitalizing her town, having opened a gift and art shop and worked with others to turn the empty public school into studio space and an incubator kitchen. She also teaches English-as-a-second-language classes to Milan's growing Micronesian population.
Ackerman + Gruber for MPR News

Milan resident Ann Thompson, who returned to her home town to be closer to her aging parents after decades of living elsewhere, said she and her husband between them work five part-time jobs.

None supply health insurance, so they buy their own.

"We have excellent health care but it's the cost of the insurance that's scandalous," Thompson said.

Thompson, 48, owns a gift shop in town, and is one reason Milan has a vibrant feel to it.

She says small town values are worth preserving.

"I know my neighbors, I trust my neighbors," Thompson said. "If my neighbor needs help I will help my neighbor."

Kristi Fernholz and her husband, both artists, also returned to Milan.

Fernholz, 38, says small town residents are bigger fish in a smaller pond.

"Every hour of volunteer board activity spent out here was much more needed than it was in a place that has all those things already established," Fernholz said.

On the other hand the pool of people willing to volunteer for activities is small leading to what Ann Thompson calls STP.

"The Same Ten People. I'm starting to learn to say, 'No,' but it's hard because you want to see things happen," Thompson said.

Factors well beyond the control of residents -- federal farm programs, for example, or changes in health care laws -- influence the survival of rural Minnesota communities.

Thompson says the attraction for her is a slower pace, but with expanded and faster Internet service she says she's still connected to the rest of the world.

"Living a peaceful life, not getting caught up in the rat race and with modern technology people can do that."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.