My paywalled local weekend paper reported stats from the Economic Innovation Group showing that, from 2007 to 2017, 80% of counties across the country lost prime working age population, residents aged 25 to 54. In South Dakota, 85% of counties lost prime working age residents. Only ten counties saw that age group expand: Lincoln, Minnehaha, Brookings, Brown, Buffalo, Todd, Jackson, Oglala Lakota, Pennington, and Mead.
“It’s clear that Brown County and Aberdeen are doing something right,” says reporter Erin Ballard. “But pinpointing the exact reason that more people are working and staying in the area is much more difficult.”
Actually, it’s not difficult at all. Brown County grows because it is surrounded by counties that have far fewer and less diverse opportunities for economic, intellectual, and cultural enrichment. Aberdeen’s factories and stores draw a variety of workers and families. Aberdeen’s three high schools and two colleges attract students and professionals and support cultural events that give people more reason to stick around. Aberdeen’s two hospitals draw another batch of professionals and folks old and young with chronic health care needs. The Hub City naturally drains residents from surrounding areas who would rather not have to spend more than an hour driving to get fresh fruit, work boots, heart pills, or dance lessons.
As a result, Brown County gains population while counties around it shrink. But even with its economic and cultural advantages, Brown County still lost jobs over the same period that its prime working age population grew, as did Brookings County.
Ballard spends much time quoting local business leaders—Jewett, Bockorny, Ochs—on all the admirable efforts the business community makes to build a welcoming culture. And yes, any community that wants to grow needs to make an effort to live its professed values of friendliness and sharing rather than just market them as a veneer over small-town insularity and suspicion. But Aberdeen has to work extra hard at offering that welcoming culture and promoting its other benefits. The geographical benefit of being the only big town within an hour’s drive for some 75,000 people also cuts against us, as we are one of the most isolated big towns in the country. We have to convince prospective workers and residents not only that we have a lot to do but that we have enough to justify being three hours away from the next biggest cities with change-of-pace fun and regularly affordable airfares. We can’t afford to turn away any willing comers, because while we have an easy sell to anyone moving from Ellendale, Faulkton, or Eureka, that prospect pool is pretty small and getting smaller. Our future growth relies on drawing people from bigger places who didn’t grow up in small-town South Dakota and who will by joining our community make Aberdeen someplace different.