Small Town Boom : The Indicator from Planet Money Small towns in rural areas across America are seeing a regeneration to advance technology, jobs and economic prospects.

Small Town Boom

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PADDY HIRSCH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Paddy Hirsch.

KIRK SIEGLER, HOST:

And I'm Kirk Siegler, a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. And today's indicator is 45. That's the percentage of Americans living in rural areas that said in a recent poll that their economic prospects are excellent.

HIRSCH: Excellent - not just good. So that was an NPR poll, by the way. And the results really fly in the face of the narrative you often hear from media outlets and from Washington, D.C., that rural areas are generally in a state of depression and decline.

SIEGLER: You know, and it's true that some towns in rural America are not doing well. But the story of the state of rural America is complicated because you can't just lump it into one, big monolithic thing. And there are places, just like in certain cities, that are booming and that are doing pretty well and have bright spots.

HIRSCH: Today on THE INDICATOR, the story of one family in one tine which, even though it's in quite a remote part of the country, is thriving and how it could hold the prescription for rural regeneration.

SIEGLER: Robby Clements moved to the town of Hotchkiss in Delta County, Colo., in 1980. He came to work in the coal mines in this picturesque valley called the North Fork Valley. By the time he retired in 2014, he had spent 37 years working underground.

ROBBY CLEMENTS: I was wore out. My body was wore out, and I just decided to retire. To be honest with you, I've had 17 surgeries over the past 12 years, 10 years. But seven I had in one year right after I got out of the mine. So and they were major surgeries - I mean, three back - two back surgeries, two shoulder surgeries, a knee replacement, another knee surgery. Yeah, mining tears your body up.

HIRSCH: Coal mining is a family occupation in this part of the world. And for the Clements in particular, mining actually goes back generations and spans several states. In Colorado, Robby's wife worked the mines - his daughter, Michelle (ph), too.

MICHELLE CLEMENTS: I started working at the mine when I was 17, right out of high school. It was really hard, really hard. I got to do lots of labor, physical labor that I hadn't done before - shoveling. Heavy equipment operation is what my job pretty much turned into the next five years.

HIRSCH: So Michelle went off to college in 2010 to study business. Her timing was pretty good because she narrowly avoided what people in Hotchkiss call the shock. Between 2014 and 2016, two of the three mines in the North Fork Valley closed.

SIEGLER: And this was huge. These were big mines. And it was getting harder and harder, frankly, to get the coal out of the ground in the valley because the cheap stuff had already been mined. It's as simple as that. And then you had the national picture, which - we know now the demand for coal was on the decline. So mining companies cut back. This shock devastated the valley. This is a small, tight-knit community. And 800 people lost their jobs, which is huge for a small town. Michelle's high-school class was particularly hard-hit.

M CLEMENTS: A lot of my classmates went into mining. A lot of them became coal miners. And when the two mines shut down, a lot of them had to move out.

SIEGLER: Robby remembers how it felt watching people leave.

R CLEMENTS: It was real tough to see - more than anything to see all the people you knew and you worked with for so many years. You played sports. They went to school with your kids. They all basically moved out of the valley, you know?

HIRSCH: Michelle, on the other hand, wanted to come home. She graduated. She worked for a while doing human resources with a mining company in West Virginia. And then she moved back to Hotchkiss. But it just didn't go that well.

M CLEMENTS: I really couldn't find an HR position that I really wanted, that I thought would be a good, you know, long-term career opportunity. And so I ended up moving to Utah.

SIEGLER: Now, things at this time were getting pretty bleak in the North Fork Valley. As people were leaving, businesses were closing and schools - the center of the community in small towns - they started dropping in enrollment, losing kids. And the town started to decline. But a couple of years ago, Robby started to see things turn around. So instead of moving out, for the first time in years, the county was seeing new residents.

R CLEMENTS: There's 10,000 people a month moving in. And this has been going on for a year and a half to two years. And with the price of housing and everything going up on the Eastern Slope, they're all moving into this area - or a lot of them are. So we're getting a lot of people from Boulder and Denver area.

HIRSCH: And this is something that our NPR poll found has been happening in rural times all over the country over the last couple of years. City people are moving in. And there are a whole bunch of reasons why it's happening. And in some cases, people are moving to places like Hotchkiss because they're tired of living in cities. There's the traffic and the pollution. And it's just expensive. And in places like New York or California, there's higher taxes, which may get it even higher in the next few years.

SIEGLER: There's a big thing going on here, right? It's technology. So we've had big changes in the workplace that are making, you know, this kind of lifestyle change much easier or at least feasible. Right around the time of the shock when the mines were closing, the Internet started getting better in Delta County. This has long been a disparity between urban and rural America - that access to broadband. How do you compete in this economy if you don't have fast Internet? And Robby and Michelle say they saw a lot of the newcomers coming to their county working out of their homes.

M CLEMENTS: We have, I think, one Internet option before (laughter). They started up Elevate Fiber and being able to put fiber in. And that was pretty brutal - the only unfortunate thing about living in a rural community. So the people that have these awesome jobs that are able to work from home - they can't - you know, they would probably love to live out in the mountains, some of them. But they can't because they don't have the resources available to them. So now that we're bringing that, that's bringing a lot more people in, too.

HIRSCH: Now, Melissa (ph) says we because she's now back home living in Hotchkiss. And she's managing the human resources department of a fiber-optic company called Lightworks. So this is a company that benefited from federal money and was able to start up in the wake of the shock. And now it retains miners as fiber technicians, more than 80 of them at the last count.

SIEGLER: Yeah, it's remarkable. So you had this shock and something positive coming out of it with, of course, the help from federal money. It's a small start. But Robby and Michelle say it's a step in the right direction, both because, you know, you can hold onto workers who don't have to move to Montana or Utah or wherever to work in the mines that still are open but also to bring back people who left, who grew up here and want to come back. And a lot of them, like Michelle, want to return to where they grew up because in a small town especially, you find people have these strong ties to their communities. It's a big part of their identity. And it's important for them to raise their families there.

HIRSCH: Well, of course, coal was a big part of the identity of people living in the North Fork Valley, too. But Robby says it may be time to let that go.

R CLEMENTS: Coal's going to be a thing in the past. I really doubt that you'll see very many mines at all in 20 years. Those opportunities aren't there for the miners anymore. You have to go find something else to where - you know, and raise your skill level.

M CLEMENTS: And I think that that's something that the community around here has accepted. And that's why there's growing business in other industries and being able to, you know, kind of retrain coal miners and put them in another specialty in another industry. And fiber optics isn't going to go away. I mean, that's the future.

HIRSCH: That willingness to look ahead, to adapt and retrain is taking hold in many small towns. Entrepreneurs are making the most of government programs designed to help rejuvenate rural areas. And local people are welcoming newcomers to their towns.

SIEGLER: Yes. And I'm seeing this across the country and across rural towns that I visit - this sort of fresh outlook. It's not great everywhere. But there is this kind of wave of optimism. And you definitely see it in places like Hotchkiss - in particular, places like that that are also quite picturesque. You know, until recently, people like Robby Clements had been feeling despair and pessimism over the future. And just listen to this. He says everything has changed.

R CLEMENTS: I've seen the ups and downs of the economy over the last 30 years. And we were definitely in a bad spiral. And everything has turned around in the past year and a half. And it's fun to see - you see people out in the streets with a smile on their face and, you know, not worried about where their next paycheck is going to come from or if they're going to have to move because there's a lot of work here. You know, they have options for the first time in a decade.

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HIRSCH: This podcast was produced by Darius Rafieyan and Constanza Gallardo. It is a production of NPR. Oh, yes, and follow us on Twitter at @theindicator.

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