Remote West Becoming Economic No Man's Land

The Rocky Mountain West region, which includes Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, was doing pretty well before the economic downturn. The five-state region had the fastest-growing personal income base of any region of the U.S. Now many of the region's isolated, rural areas are in crisis, lacking the population or economic base to sustain basic services. Host Scott Simon talks with regional economic expert Larry Swanson about fate of the area.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We turn now to someone who's studied the economy of this country's interior west, which includes Hanna, Wyoming. Larry Swanson is the associate director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, and he heads the center's regional economy program. He joins us on his phone from his office in Missoula, Montana. Mr. Swanson, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. LARRY SWANSON (University of Montana): I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: So, what do you have to do for a town like Hanna so that people don't have to drive 80 miles to get a carton of milk?

Mr. SWANSON: Well, when you get into those isolated rural areas, it's difficult, it's a tough go. And then when you get into these soft economies, just a few businesses going by the wayside can have a huge impact.

SIMON: I'm just struck by the vision of a town that young people can't wait to get out of but the senior citizens don't want to leave.

Mr. SWANSON: Yeah. We do have an aging problem when we get into some of these isolated rural areas. And this aging thing, if you look at, you know, what really creates it, the entire U.S. age profile is tilted around the Baby Boom population. And so the U.S. population as a whole is aging, but when you get into some areas, particularly areas that have been seeing all net out migration for a long time, or little or no population growth, that aging process is accelerated.

And so it starts to catch up with you, and that's kind of where we are with this aging process in some of these rural isolated areas; that Boomer group really dominates the population that you have there and they're really moving, you know, towards 65 in a hurry. And so there really isn't a lot of folks to replace them.

SIMON: Is it fair to say that before this current economic downturn, that area we call the Rocky Mountain West, which includes Wyoming, lets say Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, was actually doing pretty well?

Mr. SWANSON: You know, if you look at that five state area that's really centered in part around the Rocky Mountains, from 1990 up until about the middle part of this decade, about '05, it had the fastest growing personal income base in the United States. And even that county where Hanna is located still has a very fast growing income base. So - I mean if you look at personal income of that surrounding county area.

So, you can have growth in the larger area and surrounding area in terms of income growth, while when you get into the creases and kind of the isolated rural areas of that region, you will find, you know, these kind of areas which are not really seeing any of that. And so that's kind of what we have here.

SIMON: Is there any kind of for-business sign you could put out in a town like Hanna that would help if you had the resources?

Mr. SWANSON: Well, the best ambassadors for these small communities like Hanna are the people that live there themselves. I mean there's a reason why they're there and why they stay there. But unfortunately, that message doesnt always sell with somebody who's not from that place. So when you come into some of these small towns and youre an outsider and a visitor, there just may not be anything there that is - that looks that interesting to you.

However, if you talk to the people that live there, there's a lot there. And it's those subtleties and the friendships that people have. And really, as people get older, I mean the tendency to want to move is not increasing. People really want to stay where they are if they can. It gets really difficult though when the level of services gets as low as it is, as you see now in a place like Hanna.

SIMON: Yeah. Because a place that you have to drive 80 miles for a carton of milk, well, you can fill in the blank in so many other ways.

Mr. SWANSON: It's kind of a place in and of itself. But I think probably the thing that really stands out about the southern part of the central part of Wyoming there is just the isolation that you've got. So it's difficult.

SIMON: Larry Swanson of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, thanks so much.

Mr. SWANSON: My pleasure.

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