GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — In Minnesota outside the Twin Cities, the leveling-out or decline of population and economic growth is acute — and uncomfortable to bring up.
"Resource scarcity, and how often this scarcity is showing up, is crippling," said Tuleah Palmer, who, as chief executive of the Blandin Foundation, spends a lot of time working on the resilience of rural communities.
"It's contrary to, I think, what has been a historic independent pride in rural culture. So it's hard to articulate and it's a little bit risky to do it," she adds. "But we want to help make visible what is invisible."
Often, the biggest, toughest problems are difficult to discuss.
I found myself feeling sheepish, and worried about being impolite, on a recent trip through northern Minnesota when I asked questions about this dynamic. So I was relieved when Palmer said she and her colleagues face the same difficulty.
Slow growth is a statewide phenomenon, but people in small towns and rural areas have been contending with it for decades.
In many Minnesota places, slow growth turned into outright decline in the last 20 years. And this decade, 50 of the state's 87 counties are expected to lose population.
The foundation, created in 1941 by the founder of the Blandin Paper Co., is the largest philanthropic organization in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities with about $500 million in assets. The paper company was sold in the 1970s and the foundation has been independent from it since.
When Palmer arrived at the Blandin Foundation in July 2020, it was the height of the pandemic and the organization was intensely focused on distributing funds to help communities meet unexpected challenges.
But Palmer, who grew up in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in towns around Grand Rapids, knew that small-town life had changed immensely in her lifetime.
"Things feel different than when we were kids," she says. "There's a tension around asking 'What is going on?' It's sort of contrary to the culture to say 'There's something wrong.'"
The foundation has a lot of data about challenges and opportunities in rural Minnesota. As she and other foundation leaders looked beyond the pandemic, they realized that rural resilience needed to be a core focus of their work.
"Working class people in rural spaces, how do they access health care in 20 years? We're super-focused on that," Palmer says.
One of the main tensions in Minnesota is that the growth trajectory of the metro area is upward while for most of the rest of the state it's downward. But the Twin Cities' growth is slow relative to most other big U.S. cities. The degrees may vary but, on economic growth, all Minnesotans are in the same proverbial boat.
There are plenty of people, including elected state leaders and business executives, who care a lot about what happens outside the Twin Cities. They also realize that the growing political influence of the cities and suburbs frustrates people beyond the metro.
"But they're really situated in urban structuralism, with dense population and high mobility rates," Palmer says. "And rural places are sparse, often isolated and have low mobility rates. That inevitably shifts cultural norms and even what change looks like in rural places."
As one example, she notes how the public discussion about the transition to clean energy centers almost entirely on what it means to people in cities, but it's people in rural areas with the land needed to capture renewable energy from wind and the sun.
That makes clean energy a wonderful economic opportunity for rural areas, but one that is ripe for exploitation. "That would be a great thing to have conversations around," she says.
Even an influential institution like the Blandin Foundation can only do so much to maintain wealth and spark innovation in areas that are declining in size and economic power, Palmer says.
"Philanthropy is not the answer to a system that isn't working right," she says. "It's like the pebble that you put into the system. It's a seed for change."
I view the leaders of Minnesota's small-town businesses and institutions as today's pioneers. They are managing the questions and hard choices of flattening and decline before many people in the Twin Cities, or cities anywhere in the U.S., even understand what's going on.
Next week, I'll write about the people at five community colleges in northern Minnesota who looked at the future, then made difficult decisions to unify in the face of decline.