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Bottum: Internet Saved Sioux Falls But Can’t Save Highmore

Dr. Joseph Bottum told Lori Walsh on South Dakota Public Broadcasting this noon that Hoven, Blunt, Highmore, and other South Dakota farm towns are mostly doomed. He said some towns, like Madison, where he directs the study of cyber ethics at DSU’s Classics Institute, may manage to find a “second reason” to replace their initial agricultural raison d’être, but there’s no saving small, isolated towns where young people don’t want to live small, isolated lives.

Bottum’s pessimistic conversation with Walsh was prompted by his latest essay in The Spectator, in which he focuses some optimism on Sioux Falls, which he proposes has been saved by the cyber revolution. (Alas, the cyber revolution also made Mayor Paul TenHaken possible, so the definition of “saved” is open for debate.) In the Midwest, mini-metros like Sioux Falls are growing while the rural towns around them die, in part, speculates Dr. Bottum, because the Internet brings just enough necessary resources to make living somewhere smaller than Minneapolis but bigger than Madison tolerable:

Perhaps even more, the internet makes life in a small city more tolerable. Back in the 1970s, the small city seemed the worst of both worlds: urban problems of poverty, noise, and crime, but few urban amenities to balance them. Online shopping reduces some of the deficiencies of small-city life, and widespread connectivity allows businesses to have a national presence without the costs of maintaining a work force in a large city.

Young people still want to meet one another. Telecommuting failed to achieve the predictions we used to make for it back in the 1990s, in part because the mating impulse is strong. But the young people are willing to go to the small cities now, when they weren’t in the 1960s and 1970s. What besides the computer revolution can explain it? [Dr. Joseph Bottum, “Did the Cyber Revolution Save Sioux Falls?The Spectator, 2018.11.14]

On mating, a personal diversion: a young friend here in Aberdeen plans to move to Minnesota in the coming months. The dating pool here, this friend says, is just too thin. Cue outrage from young folks between beers at Lager’s, but remember: nowhere is the town bar a community-sustaining second reason.

Kristi Noem thinks veteran tourism can be Hot Springs’s second season… although our next Governor has yet to explain why Hot Springs hasn’t been able to capitalize on that potential second season with all the necessary tools in place—veterans hospital, easy connection to an already thriving tourism region—how much of the state’s resources she would invest to overcome those apparent free market obstacles, how she would invest those resources, and why her first impulse for economic development is to promote a seasonal industry that pays crap wages and doesn’t build real sustainable local economic activity.

But Dr. Bottum provides an discussion-worthy thesis: did the Internet save Sioux Falls? And if it did, what population is too small and what location is too remote for the Internet to reverse otherwise inevitable decline?


  1. Debbo 2018-11-19

    I’ll bet Dr. Bottum grew up about 5-10 miles from where I did because how many people have that name? He was a Tulare Chieftain or Wessington Warrior. He knows about small towns.

    Tulare and Wessington have been 95% dead for decades, with Redfield and Huron becoming their new grocery stores.

    I think some small towns will remain just because distances are so great. If Highmore dies, that means Miller is the lone stop over and school between Huron and Pierre. That leaves students traveling such a long way to get to school.

    Does Dr. Bottum predict boarding schools, or no children of school age? His outlook is pretty grim for the western 2/3 of the state.

  2. jerry 2018-11-19

    Out here in West River, we use the post office to send emails.

  3. John 2018-11-19

    The rural mega-ag economic model killed small schools, small towns. The colonies and tribes increase their populations and influence. More, bigger is the wrong answer. And since this flawed economic model is enshrined for over a century; there likely is no turning it back.

  4. T 2018-11-19

    Internet can also starve rural areas more and more
    Amazon prime boxes and Costco boxes
    Litter curbside on garbage pickup day.

    New school tax already figured in some of these towns taxed
    Ag will still have to pay once there are are even more consolidations

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-19

    Debbo, Bottum grew up in Pierre.

    What is the maximum distance one can go without a town? The Pierre-Sturgis route, 170 miles, has emptied without sustaining any stop of Highmorian proportions.

    I didn’t hear mention of the situation for remote, sparse school districts in the Bottum interview. Interestingly, Janklow pushed Internet for every school in part to address the difficulty of bringing qualified teachers in every field to every school. But if I follow Bottum’s thesis, the Internet may deliver courses to the handful of ranch kids still out there on the high plains, but it won’t make anyone not punching dogies want to move there in numbers large enough to replace all the kids who get their HS diplomas online and then head for broader opportunities on the I-29 corridor or the Black Hills.

  6. Debbo 2018-11-19

    From NEW YORK CITY!?!?!😲😲😲😲😲

  7. Donald Pay 2018-11-19

    It’s more about vision. The vision for small towns and rural areas has been lacking, and it may be too late. The state’s elite and the Republican rules spent too much time and effort in the 1980s and 1990s trying to stick waste dumps and mega hog farms in rural areas. Few wanted that kind of development, but it’s what the elite believed all that land was good for, and they tried to force it. People rebelled.

    Another bad development ideas was the Black Hills gold mines. A few hundred jobs for 6 years, and the state refused to tax it enough to create something new when the gold rush ended. Stupid.

    Those of us who opposed those dumb ideas were behind others. Alternative energy development was something that tribes, progressive farm organizations and environmentalists were pushing. South Dakota could have been the Saudi Arabia of wind. They pissed away the opportunity and far more jobs would have been created than all the dumps and gold mines put together.

    The elite had no vision. The Republicans had no vision. And they ended up hollowing out the rural areas of the state because they were terrible impaired in the vision department, and refused to listen to the people.

  8. Donald Pay 2018-11-19

    I believe the Poppers had an interesting idea: the Buffalo Commons. I wasn’t totally sold on their thesis, but it turns out they had pretty much figured this out in decades ago.

  9. Heidi Marttila-Losure 2018-11-19

    That interview is very frustrating for me. So many things to say:

    – Yes, the mating impulse is strong. That is just one reason why I (and many others) encourage rural young people to leave to go to school, get some work experience, and in general see the wider world when they are young and have little to tether them to any one place. That wandering impulse has very little to do with whether people settle in small towns when they are ready to settle. (Ben Winchester of the U of M Extension has research to show that there are significantly more people settling down in rural places than one would assume, and there could be more, if we put a little effort into encouraging it. I think this trend is more evident in Minnesota than the Dakotas, but that little flicker of flame could be fanned here, too.)

    – You bet small towns are going to have to think of something other than commodity agriculture to keep them going. The system of big ag will keep consolidating, and will require fewer and fewer people. Until, of course, something breaks it–and eventually something will. It is unsustainable in many ways, and the way in which it breaks won’t be pleasant for those who like to eat. But that’s a problem for our children or grandchildren, apparently. The immediate challenge for small towns is functioning with fewer people.

    – There is some hope for small towns in alternative ways of farming that focus on more than the bottom line, and that still require a good “eyes to acres” ratio, as Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it. But the learning curve is steep, and current systems do not support efforts to farm differently.

    – Bottum is right that not every small town is going to thrive or survive. But he has a grimmer view than is necessary. There are small towns that are actually increasing in population–generally the ones that are far enough from bigger towns that they are holding their own as regional centers. Faulkton is working in this direction, as is Webster. Herreid has hopes to increase their population with their new housing investments. There are strong strides being made in many other towns. My argument is that the *default* result for small towns is a decrease in population, but people don’t have to just sit around and wait for the default to happen. And many small town residents aren’t, and are finding a new vision and a new way to thrive. Dakota Resources has been working to inspire this new way of thinking about rural. Bottum really ought to find his way to RuralX next summer–he’ll find his worldview shaken a bit!

    – Regarding technology: I have been making a living from my family’s farm via technology for 10 years now. I have a friend in town who, 15 or so years ago, convinced a skeptical employer in Fargo to let him move back home and work remotely. Today, that company is still going strong but that Fargo office is closed or nearly so–almost every employee is working remotely, and from all over the country. Another neighbor has been working as a fairly high-level exec from her farm for 20 years. Has tech “saved” our town? That would be a stretch. But it has allowed some of us who want to live here to do so. I don’t think technology will save any town–but it can keep rural on the list of options. From there it’s the job of each town to make sure they have a community that people want to live in.

    I’m not saying there aren’t trade-offs to choosing to live rural! For example: While the two workers I mentioned were able to take their jobs with them to live here, about two years ago when I was thinking I needed a more traditional job, I tried to convince a number of employers to hire me as a remote employee. No one was interested in taking that chance. I don’t feel like driving 70 minutes a day on winter roads to a job in Aberdeen. So, while I like what I’m doing now, I also don’t really have much of a choice.

    Also, in rural we have “thin networks.” It is harder to connect because of the distances between us, and it’s difficult to make the time to build real connections, even though they are so valuable. Technology doesn’t help with that, I’ve found. Tech helps to support connections that are already there, but not to build new ones. We in rural have to learn to go out of our comfort zones to build our networks. That’s how we’ll avoid living “small, isolated lives.”

  10. John 2018-11-20

    I’m finishing reading, Prairie Fires, the historically-based analysis of the real life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s fascinating seeing that the US rural economic model was as flawed 130 years ago as it is today.

    Read the trilogy Sapiens, Homo Dues, and 21 Lessons – for a broader view of who we are, and where we might go. There is much here. Much of it will be uncomfortably thought provoking for the average Great Plains reader.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-20

    Trend more evident in Minnesota than the Dakotas…hmm, perhaps because Minnesota invests in public goods that make life in its rural towns more appealing than in the Dakotas? Perhaps because Minnesota pays higher wages?

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-20

    In one way, Bottum’s and Marttila-Losure’s theses can coexist. We do wander when we are younger and looking for love. Once we get that settled, the thin-dating-pool disadvantage of Aberdeen and points smaller disappears.

    An odd sense of minimal urban comfort has crept into my own consciousness over the last few years. Aberdeen is big enough that I can map out multiple jogging routes from my house that still keep me within city limits. Up to Wylie Park and back, out over the 281 overpass, down the bike trail to Melgaard, around Holgate… I can do a variety of different 10K routes. In some towns, a two mile-loop is the most I can do, and I’d have to run an adjoining section, out in the country, to get a good 30-60 minute run in. I like country running (and nothing beats running Lookout Mountain, or the trails out by Tinton Road, or Trail 9 up to Black Elk Peak, or even the road and trails at Lake Herman State Park), but in town it’s nice to be able to take a new street, choose a different route every block rather than being locked into the path of that four-mile-square section road.

    Some people want dating options. I want running options.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-20

    Thin networks and technological compensation: Heidi reminds me that I’ve been living a sort of neighborhood independence for a decade. I talk more often and more deeply with you folks in this comment section and on the phone/text/e-mail with folks I’ve met through blogging than with anyone (other than my wife and my daughter) who lives on my block in Aberdeen.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-20

    Interesting to see Donald, Heidi, and pretty much all of us agree that the industrial-ag model is responsible for much of rural South Dakota’s decline. How can this community-eroding economic trend be so obvious to us yet remain completely off the radar of our policymakers? How can a party of “family values” be so blind to a basic force that leaves South Dakota with fewer families?

  15. T 2018-11-20

    Years ago I read a book (yes I read once in awhile)😀 it was about bowling alleys in small towns. The theory was, once bowling alleys shut down in small communities, the community folds up. Meaning without social events the community collapses. I forgot the name of the book.
    This doesn’t hold true for schools, there are plenty of social activities build around schools. Our community is fighting to build a new school. I point out the stats for 10-20 years, how dry the counties will be, no one listens. We have 20 some in kindergarten so “we are growing”
    Well there is only so much pie to eat off of, for these kids moving back to the family farm.( There’s grandpa and grandma (signs papers take a meager wage prepares for low income nursing home parents, and kids and their families)
    The women with college degrees have kids and sell make up, health drinks, and oils. The only ones making money are the pyramid companies they work for. The point is, with ag prices the last year and this year, there is no possible way these family farm can make it, oh wait there is the 125,000 per individual coming our way in subsidies. One per farmer? Well look at how many family members are now farming, all the sudden the spouses…………….that is how small communities will survive, off our tax dollars
    Once there is another pie baked like this,
    Usually so does restructuring (borrowing million shares) make payments like rent to co exist
    Highmore, my area or other wealthy counties will likely continue to exist as long as there is farm subsidies.
    I’m not planning to retire my school sweater anytime soon.

  16. Bernie 2018-11-20

    There’s a lot more life — even in the smallest of our towns — than most drive-through writers and historians take the time to discover. The people are just spread out a lot more than some are accustomed to.

  17. Dave 2018-11-20

    I think our zoning laws have an effect on this too. Most counties have a minimum lot size of 35 acres or more to build a single family home. with exceptions of course. The purpose of these lot sizes is to protect Ag land from getting split up and turned into “Hobby Farms” with lots of smaller parcels. I’m sure there is a good reason for this… but lots of small lots = lots of people = more robust small communities.

  18. happy camper 2018-11-20

    Janklow and our laws allowing high usury rates grew Sioux Falls initially, then other states raised their allowable rates to compete with South Dakota for those jobs.

  19. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-21

    35 acres? Dave, how extensive is that limit? There are still plenty of places where one can get a good old acre or half-acre lot, aren’t there?

    I will note that one zoning officer’s “hobby farm” is another rural sustainability expert’s self-sufficient family farm and part of a recipe for rural revival.

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