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article imageOp-Ed: Why are some big towns growing into small cities?

By Robert Lawson     Jul 7, 2015 in Travel
Mankato - Small cities are growing in numerous locations throughout the U.S. Some cities like Mankato, MN are leading the way, but what can urban planners learn?
Micropolitans to metropolitans, “bigs of smalls and smalls of bigs”, what can we learn?
The United States of America is a country with sprawling cities with towering cityscape skylines. The U.S. led a building boom for most of the 21st Century and connected the rural countryside to the cities and suburbs through an interconnected highway and interstate system. Counties and cities also become well funded operations that could build streets and roads. Small cities grew. And grew.
Byways, Hubs, Access Points and Destinations
Many of the small cities in America grew from within as well as drawing resources or attention from nearby urban centers. Many of these towns may have been near a water source or located within proximity of a natural resource (gold, oil, copper, limestone, natural gas, coal, etc.) or a tourist attraction (Roswell, New Mexico UFO crash; Mount Rushmore and the Badlands in South Dakota; etc.). The automobile and the interconnected roads from rural to urban had a hand in producing boom towns, freeway communities and small “micropolitan” cities. Some cities, like Mankato, Minnesota (site of largest mass hanging of Native Americans in U.S. history, though President Abraham Lincoln pardoned many) outgrew their micropolitan status to become what is called a metropolitan statistical area (MSA). The Greater Mankato area encompasses not only Mankato but several other smaller nearby towns, townships and villages. Though Mankato itself is home to only about 50,000 residents, the MSA is actually home to around 90,000 and growing.
Mankato is in some ways unique, in other ways quite similar, when compared to other growing small cities. Mankato is not situated near a major Interstate highway, however it is situated near major state highways 14 and 169. These highways are gateways to other small cities such as Owatonna, Waseca and Rochester going east and New Ulm going west. Going north is a straight shot to the Southwest Suburbs, the inner city and the Northern Suburbs of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul). The Twin Cities is a major top 20 MSA and is the largest Midwest city outside Chicago or Detroit. Its MSA encompasses almost 4 million residents. Mankato, meanwhile continues an upward trend in population growth, jobs and diversity (mostly among young residents, since the city still lacks significant minority populations).
City planners, private firms, commercial organizations and so forth are pushing the city to offer more incentives to attract more young professional talent, who often leave after graduating from one of the areas several academic institutions to find work in the Twin Cities, where living standards are higher and where those jobs are generally located. The major age demographic in Mankato is young adults. The average age resident dropped from 27 to 25 years old from 2000-2010, according to the U.S. Census and state demographer’s office.
Diversity and ‘Growth from Within’
There are five college campuses in the Greater Mankato area, so there is a large industry in education alone. There are also major regional hospitals, clinics and health centers in the area. It is also a center of agriculture in this river city. There is diverse manufacturing that has remained strong as well, and a very strong service and retail economy.
As the Mankato City Manager Pat Henges put it, “a 15 percent growth rate over the last census (compiled every ten years) is a pretty healthy rate.” Henges explained that it is not quite the rate of growth of a sprawling suburb of a major city, but it is close and quite impressive for a newly urbanizing city. Other cities that have grown as a result from a boom in mining or oil drilling are dependent on this one major industry to support a multitude of different businesses and jobs, but when the industry falls on hard times there is a ripple out effect. Areas of Wyoming, Texas, California, Utah and other states have witnessed this effect in the past or may be on their way to realizing it in the future. Cities such as Mankato that have both grown from within and from taking outside investment enjoy the diversity of the economy because if one sector isn’t doing that well in the local economy, others may be thriving. That was the case for Mankato during the recession. While nationwide many places were struggling, particularly in housing, manufacturing, finance and others, the farm economy was booming. Mankato has a very strong regional agricultural foothold and thus supported the other parts of the economy.
“When some areas struggle, the others feed it,” Hentges said. “All of these industries essentially feed off of each other.”
The ‘Livability’ Measure
Hentges and Greater Mankato Growth, the regional group that acts like a chamber of commerce for local business, both agree that there needs to be more focus put on livability and providing more recreation for the young residents there.
“We are making our city attractive for investment and reinvestment,” Hentges said. “We went from the big of the smalls, down to the small of the bigs (chuckles).”
Mankato, along with several other similar sized cities in America, have made lists from Forbes to Newsweek and U.S. World Report for their livability, growth, public amenities and good infrastructures.
Local business is thriving, both small companies and large. One local Vietnamese mechanic who is an American citizen living in Mankato said he is lucky to be witnessing such growth.
“I’m doing business in this town at a really good time,” he said. “It’s on the way up right now, so that is good for business. Hopefully it will sustain, otherwise there could be disaster, but for now I’m taking advantage.”
Another 27-year-old man, Clark Paulsen, is a recent transplant to Mankato. He moved there to finish college because it is more affordable. He said there are some advantages and disadvantages to moving to a small city. He works in the service industry while in school and noted a different salary and standard of living: from around $13 per hour as an entry level cook down to around $10.
While an entry level job market keeps thriving, lack of opportunities for advanced professionals is a bit of worry though. Tom Roberts, originally from Mankato but who later established his business ProlimeHost in Phoenix, Arizona puts it this way “They know that there is a revolving door of cheap labor here with all of the students moving in then moving back out after they finish,” he said. “Entry level jobs are easy to find but there is a lack of a better job market for professional and technical work.”
Small Cities Topping The Lists and Bottoming Them as Well
That, Henges says, is set to change with the growth, but can it be sustained? Many other cities, such as those in the heartland and near the Great Lakes that lost their manufacturing industries or booms in resources are not faring well, as Forbes pointed out. Nonetheless, small cities topped their list for fastest growing cities, trumping major metros like Los Angeles and New York City (small cities also made the worst cities list). Maybe there are lessons the metro cities can learn from these small diversified economies. As the small cities plan, they don’t plan with the idea of moving ahead and creating a major city in short work (such has been done with disastrous results in the fast growing country of China), but rather work to grow its base of small business and regional industries, while also working to create beneficial relationships with larger enterprises from the outside so the economies are proven stable and reliable over the long term.
There are adjustments of course. For those going from small to big, it is the added complexity of social life, work, family and environment. For those going from big to small (like Paulsen), things like finding quality housing in a market with concentrated property management in only a few hands can be tough. Also there is a tradeoff for affordable housing with low-wage jobs. Paulsen said for those he knows of that came to Mankato to stay, it was because they didn’t complete school and stayed for a job or social reasons.
Nomads and Permanent Dwellers
“It is a great stepping stone city,” he replied. “They may even decide to move later on.”
For example, a friend of his was in training as a manager for Target Corp. (based in Minneapolis) and the company wanted him to see how he could handle the job and may have used the Mankato location as a testing ground due to its heavy retail market. This is speculative but there are many business management opportunities in small cities. Mankato also has large Walgreens, CVS and Best Buy locations (Best Buy is also headquartered in Minnesota).
Buying a home isn’t the same either. For $250,000 you will find a modest home in the big city, whereas in the small city $250,000 can buy a very nice piece of real estate.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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