UNH study probes ‘challenges’ of rural areas

Coos County in New Hampshire and the Pacific Northwest are thousands of miles apart geographically, but economically they are much more comparable than one might think, says a new report released by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

In its study, “Place Matters: Challenges and Opportunities in Four Rural Americas,” Carsey researchers have identified not just one, but four broad categories of economies faced by rural areas across the country.

Based on a survey of more than 7,800 respondents from 19 rural counties in the Northwest, Mid-West, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and New England, researchers have defined four categories of rural places:

• Amenity-rich areas that draw vacationers, retirees and second-home owners with their mountains, lakes, coastlines or forests. Only two rural counties of those studied were deemed “amenity-rich” — Chaffee and Park Counties in Colorado, roughly 50 miles south of Breckenridge.

• Declining resource-dependent areas that once thrived on agriculture, timber, mining and manufacturing industries which, now threatened by globalization and resource depletion, no longer support a vibrant middle-class population. Jewell, Osborne, Republic and Smith Counties in Kansas were placed in this category.

• Chronically poor regions where residents and the land have suffered decades of resource depletion and underinvestment. The counties that were identified in this category were Choctaw, Clarke, Marengo and Wilcox Counties in Alabama; Harlan and Lechter Counties in Kentucky; and Coahoma, Tunica and Quitman Counties in Mississippi.

• Amenity/decline areas, a transitional type characterized by amenity-driven growth and resource-based decline. While traditional resource-based economies in these areas have weakened, these transitional regions show potential for amenity-driven growth. This includes Coos County, N.H.; Oxford County, Maine; Clatsop County, Ore.; and Pacific County, Wash.

For the purposes of the survey, “rural” was loosely defined following federal guidelines for metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, said Chris Colocousis, a research associate for the Carsey Institute.

“It wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but generally we chose areas that had traditional ties to local resources and had smaller population,” said Colocousis, a Ph.D. candidate at UNH and one of the report’s authors.

Colocousis said the researchers placed New Hampshire’s Coos County in the transitional category of amenity/decline because it “has been though tough times in the past decade, and it’s unclear where it is going.”

One of the interesting comparisons emerging from the study involved the Northeast counties and the Northwest counties and population out-migration of 25- to 34-year-old between 1990 and 2005. The Northwest region experienced a 1 percent drop in population for that age group. The Northeast counties saw a 24 percent decrease – a loss of nearly a quarter of the population that is most active in the economy.

“Both rural areas are considered in amenity/decline, but there is a mix of forces shaping both the growth and the decline in both areas,” said Colocousis. “The Northeast seems to be still more headed toward decline than the Northwest.”

While not studied directly, Colocousis also said that “by and large, amenity-driven growth was enhanced by a rural area’s proximity to a metropolitan area.”

He also said he thought the greater in-migration of retirees might have spurred some of the growth in the Oregon and Washington rural counties.

Access to affordable health care, effective education, accessible public transportation, affordable housing and jobs that offered living wages were also issues shared by all the rural areas studied.

For places in transition like Coos County, the future is balanced on a knife’s edge, the researchers concluded.

“To continue to attract in-migrants including retirees, who bring their own accumulated wealth as well as entrepreneurial energy and skills, infrastructure that facilitates access to and from the city and within the rural region is critical,” they wrote.

Berlin residents seem more optimistic than the rest of the beleaguered Coos County. According to Colocousis, “Even though they’ve had it hard, they have a more positive outlook and say it’s going to be a better place, at least anecdotally. There is hope embodied, buried in the data.”

A copy of the report can be downloaded at www.carseyinstitute.unh.edu.

Cindy Kibbe can be reached at ckibbe@nhbr.com.