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Small-town America’s most precious resource

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

(Read caption) Cheerleaders are served by a waitress on roller skates at Arnold's Drive-In, in Decatur, Ind.

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Small-town America has always been more than a place. It has been an idea. Main Street. Picket fences. Parades. Corner stores and cashiers you know by name. America is many things, but since its founding, its small towns have incubated no small part of the nation’s sense of itself. 

In this week’s cover story, Doug Struck winds his way across the United States to answer the question, What is small-town America incubating now? The usual portrait we see is often not an optimistic one.

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In May, The Wall Street Journal published a report titled “Rural America Is the New ‘Inner City.’ ” Its findings were as bracing as the headline. Small-town America is in crisis. Just as inner cities were rife with unemployment, crime, and drug use in the 1980s, so rural America faces these problems today amid economic change and an opioid epidemic.

Just look at some of the statistics from that Wall Street Journal report: From 1992 to 1996, counties with a population of fewer than 100,000 accounted for 32 percent of the country’s business creation. From 2010 to 2014, they accounted for zero percent. (In fact, their rate of business creation was negative during that time.) 

The story is the same with job creation, where these counties’ share of the nation’s total has dwindled from 27 percent to 9 percent.

Consider: In Oregon, more than half the jobs are in only three of the state’s 36 counties, according to a report in The Atlantic. In rural America, “Make America Great Again” is not a clever slogan, it is a desperate plea for survival. 

So often, the proposed answers seem to be some version of turning back the clock. Many “ideas revolve around restoring how things used to be – attracting a new lumber company or factory or whatnot,” notes The Atlantic in its report on rural Oregon. 

Yet there are notes of defiance in small-town America, too. 

Look at what the mayor of Peru, Ind., is doing in Doug’s story. He’s trying to change the terms of the battle. It’s not about getting back an old factory; it’s about building a better quality of life to tempt city-dwellers to move farther out. “What we are fighting now is a battle for people,” he says.

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Or look at what Debbie and Bill Gardner are doing in Draper, Va. They bought the old mercantile building and turned it into a bakery and bookstore, old potbellied stoves included. It has added 50 jobs, according to The Washington Post. 

“Small towns on the upswing often have a cast of characters who spot potential where others see nothing,” the Post writes. “The risks of a few ... lay the foundation for a resurgence.”

For generations, much of America’s opportunity was in its boundless rural landscapes – its rich soil and coal seams. But as that shifts, a new commodity is coming forward as even more valuable to the future of small towns from Storm Lake, Iowa, to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho: new thinking.