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Communities can learn to shrink smarter

Can a community shrink and improve at the same time?

An Iowa State University architecture professor says it can and has spent several years researching small towns in Iowa that are thriving even in the face of declining population.

A look at U.S. Census numbers confirms what most people see  just by walking down the Main streets of rural America. Small towns are shrinking as the country moves from an industrial economy based on manufacturing to a post industrial economy based on the Internet and technology.

In Mississippi, census estimates suggest 80 percent of the state’s counties are shrinking in population. Of the remaining 20 percent, most of the growth in the state is concentrated in the state’s metropolitan areas on the Gulf Coast, north of Jackson and near Memphis.

Like most of the state, Adams County has experienced population decline in the last few decades. Census numbers show that Adams County has lost a little more than 7,000 residents since 1980 when the county’s population topped out at 38,035 — an 18.5 percent drop in nearly four decades.

Natchez is not unlike many towns in rural America that are struggling to attract more people in order to thrive and survive, Iowa State Associate Professor Zarecor said.

Recently featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Zarecor told NPR she started the “Shrink Smart Project” after studying Ostrava, a city in the Czech Republic that dramatically shrank when its coal and steel industry collapsed at the end of the Cold War.

Despite the collapse, Ostrava continued to thrive as a place   “people love to live in.”

The town focused on quality of life. It cleaned up pollution, invested in older neighborhoods and reinvented itself and now has become a cultural center of the region.

Zarecor and her colleague Dave Peters see similar things happening in Iowa.

After researching what keeps some shrinking towns in Iowa thriving while others continue to decline, the professors say towns should focus on quality of life rather than trying to lure new residents.

In Sac City, Iowa, the population is down by a third since a farm equipment plant closed in the 1980s.

Even still the town of 2,105 boasts a hospital, recreation center, two swimming pools, a vibrant library and the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. Better yet, the town boasts an energetic community foundation that works collaboratively to make the community one that regularly competes for the top spot on the “Best Small Towns in America” list.

The community foundation is one of Sac City’s secrets to success, Zarecor and Peters said. Shrink Smart towns depend on a community that is civically engaged and is open to new ideas, they said.

A shared community vision and strong work ethic is one of the keys, the professors said in their report.   

Leaders of Sac City admit they would much rather see the town grow and would welcome new industries that would bring jobs and attract families. But the city remains focused on providing a community in which residents love to work and live.

Zarecor and Peters suggest more communities should strive to be like Sac City, stop beating themselves up because of a shrinking population and focus on improving the community they do have — a possible lesson for Natchez and other communities in Mississippi.

Ben Hillyer is news editor of The Natchez Democrat. He an be reached at 601-445-3549 or by email atben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.