Why ‘micropolitan’ cities may be the key to rural resurgence
While the nation’s diverse rural areas, which cover roughly 90 percent of the U.S. and provide a home for about 60 million Americans, are often dynamic and inviting, many have recently faced economic headwinds. Huge social shifts, like aging populations, declining manufacturing activity, and the clustering of tech and service jobs in cities, have left less-dense parts of the United States struggling to keep up, contributing to a negative, pernicious, and overblown narrative that some areas are “beyond hope.”
That’s not the story of Findlay, Ohio, which offers a counterpoint to this narrative. The small city of 41,000 has not only seen manufacturing remain part of the local employment picture—it accounts for roughly 22 percent of jobs for the last three decades—but manufacturing employment in 2016 was actually higher than the pre-recession peak in 2007. Economic development officials proudly talk about the success of the “Findlay Formula”: getting private, public, and nonprofit partners working together to create jobs and opportunities.
Mayor Lydia Mihalik, in this year’s State of the City address, praised 2017’s record-setting year of economic development, and noted that Findlay was “small enough” to come together and solve big problems.
Findlay represents a little-studied, but potentially important part of the puzzle of increasing rural prosperity: so-called micropolitan areas. Defined as geographic areas with one city of more than 10,000, but fewer than 50,000 people, it’s a smaller-scale version of the city/region scenario. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, which introduced the concept in 2003, the nation has 550 micropolitan areas, and combined, they are home to roughly one in 10 Americans.
Ross DeVol, a fellow at the Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville, Arkansas, who has studied the impact of micropolitan areas, believes that their economic success can revive rural economies and be a catalyst for the surrounding region. Much has been made of the increasing fortunes of midsize U.S. cities, or plans to invest in tech businesses outside of established innovation enters in coastal cities. But significant investment in these smaller cities can, as DeVol told Curbed, be a more direct engine for rural growth.