The EDA Center | at the University of Minnesota  
Commentaries on Greater Minnesota

Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.


The Residual Nature of Rural Minnesota
February 2009
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
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I have to admit that for years now there have been few questions asked of me more often than, "how do you define rural?" In fact, it is such a commonly asked question, I am reminded of the retort from a former federal official when asked to define obscenity; that being ... "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it!" Similarly, most of us recognize that the U.S. Census Bureau categorizes places and communities in a variety of ways, but does it really matter? Don't we simply know "rural" when we see it? Well the reality is that in many ways "rural" is a residual category; and in a surprising number of ways yes, it definitely does matter.

You see, the U.S. Census Bureau categorizes places that range from Metropolitan Statistical Areas, to Urbanized Places, to the recently adopted (2003) Micropolitan Statistical Areas. It's an interesting array of categories and typologies; and after the Census Bureau categorizes everything that can be categorized, that which is left over is defined as rural. Accordingly, rural is a residual category ... the demographic catch basin, if you will. It is also important to realize that as community, county and regional populations grow and retrench, these categories change over time. But does it really matter?

Well, as every city manager and county administrator knows, it not only matters, but it matters a lot. For you see these categories provide communities access to a variety of federal programs and funding from federal transit dollars, to community development block grant funding. To give you a simple example in Minnesota, metropolitan communities are defined as "Entitlement Communities" and are guaranteed annual funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant program. All other communities must compete annually against each other to pick up the crumbs. In other words ... it's good to be a metro community.

However, another much less often cited reason why it matters is in how our rural communities are perceived in their economic development efforts. University of Illinois professor Andrew Isserman best articulated this argument several years ago when he facetiously suggested that the Census Bureau create a new category he called "Formerly Rural Communities." Isserman observed that rural communities are similar to metropolitan communities in that some like Seattle are very successful in their economic development efforts while others like Detroit are not. The difference however is that if a rural community becomes too successful in its development efforts the consequence is that it loses its rural label. The example he cited was Rochester, Minnesota, a quiet farming community that has today developed into a dynamic metro community of 100,000 residents. Unfortunately, Rochester's success is not viewed as rural Minnesota's success as it is no longer categorized a rural community.

Following this logic it is not difficult to see how if rural Minnesota's most economically successful communities continue to lose their rural label, then over time the collective success of rural Minnesota will continually and chronically diminish. Are such concerns real? Well right before the New Year the federal Office of Management and Budget designated the Mankato/North Mankato area as Minnesota's newest Metropolitan Statistical Area. Further, just a quick look at the current census population estimates allows one to safely project that within a few years the Brainerd/Baxter region will likely be next to shake its rural label. And as we look further to the future there are several additional micropolitan areas that will be aggressively vying to join the MSA club as well.

But while we celebrate the success of these newly-minted metro areas, the question remains, will their success ultimately be a collective loss for rural Minnesota? While Isserman's suggestion to establish a new category called "Formerly Rural Communities" was obviously made tongue and cheek, we have to recognize that at times the political divisions between rural Minnesota and metro Minnesota are quite real. Specifically, during times of economic hardship it's easy for our more successful metro communities to complain and balk about economically "subsidizing" our less successful rural communities. I only hope that during times like these our public officials recognize the structural differences between these communities and conclude that in the end there is but one Minnesota; and we will all rise or fall together.

Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at

This document was prepared by the University of Minnesota, Crookston under award number 06-66-05709 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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