April 27, 2013 / 9:26 PM / 7 years ago

Kansas group tries to reverse exodus of young from rural America

BALDWIN CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - Young people have been leaving rural America for decades, but Mike Bosch, 34, is happy to swim against the tide.

Mike Bosch, part of a "rural by choice" movement, is pictured in Baldwin City, Kansas, April 24, 2013. Bosch kept his IT business instead of moving it to Dallas. Young people have been leaving rural America for decades, but Mike Bosch, 34, is happy to swim against the tide. REUTERS/Kevin Murphy

Instead of moving his fast-growing information technology services company to his hometown of Dallas last year, Bosch chose to stay in Baldwin City, Kansas, population 4,515. The business, Reflective Group, sits between a car repair shop and post office on a quiet cobblestone street.

All but two of the company’s 17 employees are under 40, and half of them live in Baldwin City, about 45 miles southwest of Kansas City.

Bosch is part of a Kansas group called PowerUp, a social and business network that touts rural life for the under-40 crowd and lets them know they are not alone.

“There isn’t a 20 to 30 year old out there who isn’t going through some struggles in these towns,” Bosch said. “We started educating people on why small towns can be better than big towns, and what resources exist out there.”

Bosch is revamping the group’s website, ruralbychoice.com, to share the success stories of young people in small towns. “We really want to target and champion our age group,” Bosch said.

Some 1,200 people across Kansas are in the PowerUp movement, including those who stayed in rural areas or moved away and came back.

Most young people choose to live in urban areas because there are far more jobs and cultural amenities, said Laszlo Kulcsar, a Kansas State University associate professor who studies population trends.

Those factors, coupled with the steady decrease in the number of family farms, have sapped populations of the young in rural regions, he said.

In 1970, 23 percent of the 18-to-29 age group lived in rural areas, according to the U.S. Census. By 2010, only 14 percent of people in that demographic lived in rural areas, defined as communities of 2,500 or fewer people.

PowerUp member Julie Roller said only about 30 of the 88 graduates of her 2002 high school class in Chapman, Kansas, still live in that area. The population of Chapman is 1,343.

“A lot of it is the message they received in high school - that you have to go away to make something of yourself,” Roller said. “I think we are starting to shift away from that. We have a good number of people who are coming back.”

One example is Travis Peter, who moved back to Tribune, Kansas, population 741, from Utica, New York, last summer after his wife, Zoe Clark-Peter, got a teaching job. Peter grew up in Tribune in far western Kansas and runs a financial planning service there. He said he likes knowing most of the folks in town, and that Tribune is safe and has a good local school.

“You have things to do here ... or, you don’t have to do anything,” Peter, 31, said. “We have a 3-year-old daughter and she can play in the backyard, outside or inside the fence, and we don’t have to worry about it.”

The wide open spaces were an eye-opener for his wife, a New Jersey native, Peter said.

“I think her first comment was ‘I can’t believe how big the sky is,’” he said.

Drawing young people like Peter has helped keep Tribune vibrant, said Christy Hopkins, community development director in Greeley County, where Tribune is located. Unlike many other small towns, Tribune has no empty storefronts, said Hopkins, a PowerUp member.

“We got the last one,” Peter said.

PowerUp is the creation of Marci Penner, a central Kansas resident who heads the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which exists to preserve and sustain rural culture. Penner said that, in her travels around Kansas, she saw how young people mattered in a small town’s survival.

“I thought that if we could connect these people they’d be happier and more likely to stay,” Penner said. “A lot of people living in these rural areas feel isolated.”

PowerUp was formed about 2-1/2 years ago and Penner said she knows of no such group in any other state.

PowerUp plays to the comfort zone of its 21-to-39 age group because it relies on technology to keep them connected through a Facebook page, Twitter and other social media, Penner said. The group also has meetings occasionally and recently held a Legislative Day at the state capitol.

Roller said housing as well as jobs can be a hurdle for young people in small towns. Housing stock is often old, there are few rental properties, and building a new house is difficult because contractors might be far away. Gas prices can also be an issue if people in small towns have to drive a long way to jobs in other communities, she said.

Towns such as Baldwin City, which are relatively close to larger cities, are in the best position to draw and keep young people, Bosch said. But even the draw of downtown Kansas City, 45 minutes away, does not take Bosch out of town that often, he said.

“Yes they have a lot of great venues and great restaurants -and $6 beers - but I’d have to drag my friends out there,” Bosch said. Baldwin City has dining and culture of its own, he said.

Bosch and several Reflective Group employees said they like Baldwin City for the short commutes, friendly people and surrounding countryside. Bosch earned a master’s degree from Baker University in Baldwin City before starting his business.

Technology allows companies such as Reflective Group to operate virtually anywhere. This works in favor of small towns, which also have the advantage of lower costs and dedicated employees. Bosch said. Bosch said there is a “moral competitive advantage” for companies in small towns that employ young people with rural backgrounds.

“They have an amazing work ethic and strong values,” he said.

Roller, an associate at the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation in Wamego, Kansas, said a lot of young people are looking for jobs that will bring them closer to their rural roots. That was the case with her in moving to Wamego, a town of 4,372 in northeast Kansas.

“I like the area, my family is an hour’s drive away, I feel very fortunate,” Roller said. “I don’t plan to go anywhere else.”

Reporting By Kevin Murphy; Editing by Greg McCune and Gunna Dickson

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