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Coronavirus Produces Mixed Economic Results in Small Towns, Doesn’t Promise Great Rural Revival

As they open South Dakota News Watch‘s analysis of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on South Dakota’s small towns, Nick Lowrey and Bart Pfankuch find some evidence of the buy-local phenomenon in Miller, as observed by Rexall Drug co-owner and pharmacist Travis Anderberg:

While the pandemic has hobbled many businesses, some others have flourished. By the end of May, both the towns of Miller and Wessington Springs had actually taken in more sales-tax revenue so far in 2020 than in 2019. Dozens of small towns around South Dakota also had seen increases in sales-tax revenue as residents increasingly turned to local stores for groceries and hardware.

While his business has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, Anderberg attributed Miller’s sales-tax bump to more residents shopping local and traveling less.

“I’ve noticed that they’ve been very supportive of the local businesses, and I would like to see it stay that way,” Anderberg said. “We are optimistic that that’ll be the case when things get back open” [Nick Lowrey and Bart Pfankuch, “Small Towns in S.D. Facing Big Challenged amid Pandemic and Historic Declines,” South Dakota News Watch, 2020.06.16].

Newell butcher Randy Boesem is also seeing more business:

In one recent day, he butchered three cows and four pigs owned by ranchers who couldn’t get their animals butchered anywhere else and said he is booked through the summer with processing jobs [Lowrey and Pfankuch, 2020.06.16].

But Alcester isn’t getting a coronavirus boom:

In Alcester, a town of 755 on U.S. 11 about 50 miles south of Sioux Falls, the pandemic’s effect can clearly be seen in sales-tax collections. Compared with 2019, Alcester saw a 27% decline in sales-tax collections through May 2020, according to the South Dakota Department of Revenue. Pandemic-related closures of several key downtown businesses were largely responsible for the losses, said Alcester Finance Officer Pat Jurrens [Lowrey and Pfankuch, 2020.06.16].

The economic data from the pandemic is clearly mixed… and none of us want coronavirus to stick around long enough to give us lots more data on whether rural communities can turn pandemic social distancing into a growth opportunity. But remember Dr. Joseph Bottum’s warning from the good old days (a mere year and a half ago) that a resumption of interest in rural living won’t save most small towns. Coronavirus has shown us that going just a few weeks without restaurants and urban shopping and big parties and stadium sporting events drives lots of people bonkers. Convincing people to move to Miller, Newell, or Alcester will require convincing them to give up many of those things for good or at least accepting that for much of that urban enjoyment, they’ll have to drive an hour or six on the weekends when they can get away from the ranch.

Even if coronavirus drives some urban folks to change their priorities and make sacrifices to live in rural South Dakota, they still won’t be unplugged from the global economy and the risks of coronavirus—just ask the folks in Huron and Alpena. Even here in Kristi Noem’s Freedom™topia, lives and livelihoods are still connected to the big world. People aren’t going to drop everything and move to Miller to make wicker baskets and tomatoes for their neighbors (well, they might if the oil runs out and we hard-land in James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand instead of crash-landing in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). They’re going to want specialized restaurants and unique consumer goods that small-town entrepreneurs can’t provide. They’re going to want Vikings games and Paul McCartney, not just Legion baseball and Johnny Holm at the street dance.

Any small-town revival will depend on global economic revival. It will also depend on major economic changes and government investments. If we expect city dwellers to move here and work remotely, we’ll need bigger government investments in broadband to support their production and consumption. That production and consumption will have to move beyond agriculture to be more supportive of intellectual, creative work. South Dakota will have to follow up on the Janklow revolution and see and sell itself as a great place to do finance, data science, health care, and other professional work that requires stronger investments in education.

Even amidst that economic diversification, if we want more people to come farm and ranch here, we’ll have to see more consumer interest in and government support for small-scale agriculture, unplugging production from the oppressive Monsanto/Smithfield corporate assembly line and getting both customers and the state to support smaller producers making food in our backyards. Note that the young aspiring agripreneur Lowrey and Pfankuch talk to in Wessington Springs, Logan Wolter, can’t make it in the standard Big Ag model, because twentysomethings like him can’t afford to buy the huge land holdings and equipment necessary to participate in the ag-industrial complex. Wolter told Governor Noem at her Ag Summit last summer that the state should provide finance or incentive programs to help young people get into farming and ranching. (Alas, you have to have 5,000 hogs to get this Governor’s attention.)

Reversing the trend of small-town decline hasn’t happened from wistful wishes, and it won’t happen from one pandemic. Getting people to move back to places they’ve been abandoning for decades for a host of economic and cultural reasons will require a revolution in the kinds of economic activities we support with our personal spending and our government investment.


  1. cibvet 2020-06-19 12:17

    Small towns are great places for young people to live and raise families, except that its very hard to educate kids and make a living there. Small towns are great for the elderly who want reasonable housing and a slower lifestyle, except that you probably will need specialized medical care without traveling a 100 miles to receive the care.For these reasons, they will continue to disappear until the city folks decide that commuting is not so bad, and then in ten years, everyone is back in a city that grew up around them.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-06-19 12:53

    Schools, well-paying jobs, and health care: Cibvet’s clearly identifies primary needs for recruitment and retention. We can make good money with online jobs, but not in every field. Some health care can be done by telemedicine, but emergency and in-patient care require a hospital close by. Schools… well, I remain an advocate of online education, but this spring’s crash experiment in online K-12 shows it takes a lot of planning, work, and gear. Coronavirus hasn’t changed any of those facts.

  3. mike from iowa 2020-06-19 18:23

    Corona virus creates and inflates drumpf’s body count daily….


    Reached and surpassed a new milestone nearly everyday.

  4. jerry 2020-06-19 20:16

    Housing in small towns is not so cheap either and if you do any improvements, you get a nice tax bill and so do your neighbors because of property values. They kinda don’t like that when some are living on a fixed income, Check your water source. Putting in water and sewer or a septic tank, ain’t cheap either. All things considered, it’s still a good deal to live out in the rural areas…but only go if you’re a church going type and know how to shut the hell up regarding a different opinion than that of the local Indian hating trumpers. It might take a little while to get that from them, but you will get it, so don’t be surprised. Keep your head down and stay out of the coffee shop during the round table discussions chaired by the local right wing loud mouth. Go fishing…a lot, keep your bride handy, and be armed cause you never know who or what may happen and the county sheriff might be unavailable. Get yourself a reliable snow blower and a place where you can put it out of the weather…back it in, you will need it. A generator and gas for it that will last at least 3 weeks along with a freezer and a large pantry. Worked for me over the years.

    On a plus note, the 2009 Stimulus that Obama put into play had 7 billion for rural high speed internet. That is still being built today to bring broadband to rural areas. So, if your reasonably young and healthy, rural areas are definitely for you.

  5. T 2020-06-19 20:29

    Bowling alone
    Sums it up pretty well
    ” Putnam identifies a negative trend in recent years, as group membership and activities are in decline. The concept of “social capital” is introduced as a metric by which to observe and quantify the connections between individuals and the trust between
    Them” perspectives and quote from review out more eloquently than my busy mind these days but read the book
    Robert putman if you have a moment
    If we are not comfortable with our community family we seek comfort elsewhere like amazon
    Community ties is alive and well.
    Alcester something going on there as stroll over to other local communities by SF, some held there own according to friends that live there.

  6. Debbo 2020-06-19 22:45

    Community ties are flourishing in places like Minneapolis. During and following the murder of George Floyd, the protests and riots, neighbors pulled together and that hasn’t let up one bit. If anything, the awareness that “we’re all in this together” has blossomed across racial and economic lines.

    Isn’t that a surprise. The closeness is flourishing in big cities, while some small towns are struggling.

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