How best to describe small-scale cities with populations of 10,000 to 50,000 people located in semi-rural regions of the country? The US Census Bureau came up with the word “MICROPOLITAN” and that word has stuck.
Russ DeVol, a research fellow at the Walton Family Foundation in Benton, Arkansas, specializes in micropolitan areas. “These micropolitans are doing better than truly rural areas…” in terms of both population and economic growth, said DeVol. “They’re doing better than those on the two coasts may believe.”
Findlay, Ohio is one of several poster child micropolitans. With a population of 41,000 people, economic development officials talk of the “Findlay Formula” for micropolitan success. Findlay leaders have created partnerships with private, public and non-profit entities to create jobs and opportunities. In addition to loyal, local firms such as Whirlpool and Cooper Tire, Findlay leaders have successfully encouraged 15 different Fortune 500 companies to relocate to their city proper.
Findlay’s overall unemployment rate has been below the national average for several years now. Its manufacturing employment in 2016 was higher than its pre-recession peak in 2007. And Findlay partners with the University of Findlay in the development of new firms and the training for jobs needed locally.
DeVol believes micropolitans can revive economies and be the catalyst for surrounding micropolitan regions. Areas such as Oxford, MS have benefitted from startup and entrepreneurship opportunities taking root at the University of Mississippi. CoreLogic recently bought FNC, a company that streamlines mortgage approvals and launched by Ole’ Miss professors and students in 2016 for $475M. New Gear Solutions, a custom software company targeted to the restoration industry, also came out of such a partnership. In fact, Oxford has seen its population balloon +40% in the last 15 years. Three of four new residents moved to Oxford for such new jobs and opportunities.
The key to micropolitan prosperity, according to DeVol, is developing diversified economies within these small-scale regions. Micropolitan workers and areas can supply the endless demands for warehouses and distribution centers at reduced costs. Recreation-based rural regions such as Bozeman, Montana are growing their residential and tax bases whereas farm- based rural regions are losing their tax and residential bases.
DeVol isn’t asking micropolitans to compete with Silicon Valley. He is asking micropolitans to focus on providing entrepreneurship training and business skills to build better job pipelines and coordinate with educational and vocational training so people have a chance to build their own companies to be true community catalysts.