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Rural communities face challenges with growth, decline

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to rural communities in Illinois facing questions on how to grow or how to stop the decline.

Some municipalities worry that the community they find comfortable is threatened by development while others find their towns in a slow decay with declining populations and loss of jobs.

A program called Smart Growth is a collaborative policy and planning concept rural communities can adopt to develop solutions that fit their specific wants and needs. Organizers said the program embraces community identity, preserves agricultural and natural areas and protects assets while creating fiscally and socially responsible opportunities in employment, housing and infrastructure.

During a University of Illinois Extension presentation of the program, Mim Evans, senior research associate at the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University, said a community must first gauge its citizens on what direction they want their town to go.

“We always start by assembling a profile of the community and the surrounding area, do a survey of residents and business owners, and hold one or more community meetings,” Evans said.

Evans said there are typically four responses when people are asked how they want their small town to grow. No change at all, more amenities, like a grocery store, more tourism, and the strongest response, more industry.

Attracting more residents will be a challenge for smaller communities in a state that is losing residents. The total population in Illinois is about 12.8 million, a decline of about 18,000 since the last census count. Only two other states, West Virginia and Mississippi, lost residents.

Evans said there are three ways to increase the population in a small, rural community and that is through immigration, relocation from within the state, and natural births, the latter being the most difficult because smaller communities are aging.

Research shows Illinois is losing young people of child-bearing age, a loss that is compounded when those young adults go on to have children that grow up in other states.

There is a possibility the pandemic may shift the population in the state from urban areas to rural areas as people want more space and are able to work from home. Besides, Evans said, polls show many people would enjoy living in a small-town setting.

“They like the rural environment, they like the natural amenities that are there, personal safety always very high on the list, the small-town atmosphere and sense of community, the lower cost of living and the lack of regulations,” Evans said. “They can keep their truck in the front yard.”

This article was originally posted on Rural communities face challenges with growth, decline

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