‘Brain Gain’ in Rural America and Who Is Behind It | LOR Foundation

‘Brain Gain’ in Rural America and Who Is Behind It

By Ilana Newman, The Daily Yonder


A holiday window painting celebrating Montezuma-Cortez High School in Cortez. (Photo by Matthew Tangeman)

This story was produced through the Daily Yonder Rural Reporting Fellowship, with support from the LOR Foundation.

For many people, leaving a rural place is a rite of passage. From higher education to looking for love, many think they have to leave to pursue the rest of their lives. This narrative contributes to the often repeated and not all true story that our rural communities are dying.

According to University of Minnesota researcher Ben Winchester, rural communities are actually gaining residents — mainly above the age of 35 – in a trend that he calls “brain gain”. Winchester also said the “brain drain” trend of 18 years olds leaving their home communities is not only a rural trend. Overall, between 40-60% of all kids end up leaving their hometown. “When you’re 18-25 you’re generally very individualistic,” said Winchester.

So who is choosing rural and why?

Ryan Haley graduated from Montezuma Cortez High School in 2011 and headed to Grand Junction, Colorado, for college, where he played football and discovered his future career — chiropractic care. Next, he went to Dallas, Texas, for Chiropractic school where he met his wife.

During school, Haley started talking to a chiropractor back home in Cortez about coming back and helping out with the practice. In 2018, he and his wife returned to Montezuma County with their first child, and started working at 4 Corners Chiropractic.

Haley sees Montezuma County as a preferable place to raise kids, and he appreciates the tight knit community that he finds less common in the larger urban areas he’s lived in.

“I’m part of a close community that uplifts each other, where I feel like in a city you do not get as much of that. It is kind of every man for himself,” Haley told the Daily Yonder.

Haley appreciates the way the Cortez community comes together when people are sick or need support. From chili fundraisers or auctions to a helping hand with a car project, they both see their home community as a place where people show up to help out.

The common refrain across interviewees for this story was that leaving their hometown was important, for the perspective that distance provides. Whether or not they returned home, or settled elsewhere, they found that trying something new taught them what their values are.

So how do rural areas continue the trend of “brain gain”, or older demographics returning or moving ro rural areas? How do rural areas continue to attract people who want to live there and contribute to the community — whether they are from the area or coming from elsewhere?

When 18 year old Stephen Candelaria thought about Cortez, Colorado, things that came to mind where: “No opportunities.” “This place sucks.” “There’s nothing for me here.” “I’m never coming back.” He eventually did leave the area to go to college at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. (Photo by Ilana Newman / The Daily Yonder)

“The trend I call the ‘brain gain’ really picked up in the nineties and filled up almost every vacant home in rural America. And then we’ve seen that trend continue for the past two decades,” said Winchester. He goes on to say that that trend has slowed down more recently, which could be because the rural housing stock is largely filled with older residents, retiring in place.

“This generation of seniors are staying in their homes longer than any previous generation. So it kind of slowed down this brain gain trend,” said Winchester. This also contributes to housing prices going up due to lack of housing stock in rural areas across the country.

“Even if you wanted to move to a rural community, you couldn’t because there is really literally nowhere for them to live,” he said.

Welcoming the Newcomers

Meanwhile, two states up and over to the east, in Otter Tail County, Minnesota, a rural rebound initiative coordinator has the job of welcoming and supporting newcomers to the community in an attempt to keep them in the community for longer. Through their Grab-A-Bite program, locals take newcomers out for a meal to help jumpstart the social network building process of moving to a new rural community.

Winchester emphasizes the importance of community support for new residents because it’s going to be the new residents that step up into leadership roles in the future. He said that returning adults already have the community infrastructure, and coming back to where they grew up is going to be a much easier transition than for someone new to a community.

Emily Spahn moved to Cortez in 2020 from Denver because she wanted to move to a place where the outdoors was more accessible. She loves to ski, mountain bike, and rock climb, and she found a place where she could do all of those things without going far. She soon found that the pace of life helped her slow down and get out of the competitive spirit that she felt while living in cities.

Spahn said that finding community in Montezuma County was a slow process, joking that the first year she lived in the area she was sure that she had invited everyone in the area under 40 to her birthday party. There were 7 people in attendance.

In many urban areas, it can be easy to get caught up in a bubble of people who have the same beliefs, said Spahn. But in Cortez, for better or worse, political beliefs and cultural backgrounds overlap. Spahn said that she has now become friends with people that she might never have met in a city because there are fewer options in a small town.

Three years after moving to the area, Spahn organized a gathering that had more than 20 friends in attendance.

Community Maintenance

To keep our rural communities alive and thriving, not necessarily growing, Winchester said that communities need a plan for turnover in leadership, whether that’s nonprofit boards, county commissioners, city council, or other leadership positions.

At 30, Candelaria is back in Cortez, running the family business, Candelaria Construction. “There’s a lot that I took for granted here that I didn’t realize was a luxury,” Candelaria admitted. “The community really takes care of one another here, and I think that’s really special,” he told the Daily Yonder. (Photo by Ilana Newman / The Daily Yonder)

“Over 75% of rural homes are occupied by baby boomers and older. And when they turn over over the next 25 years, we’re gonna have the largest turnover of residents in our rural communities that we’ve almost ever seen,” he said. “Are we ready for these succession plans for leadership?”

Amorina Lee Martinez grew up in Mancos, Colorado, another town in Montezuma County. She said that school was a defining piece of her life, excelling in high school and then going to the University of Colorado Boulder on a scholarship. After graduating, she returned to Southwest Colorado before going back to Boulder for grad school, where she studied the Dolores River region. She spent 10 years in Boulder, but she always knew she would eventually want to return to Montezuma County.

“I want to take all this learning and all this big city stuff and bring it back to my community and give back. So that was the value or the motivation of coming back was that why not contribute my energy to the place that raised me,” said Lee Martinez.

She values the intergenerational connection to place and hopes to contribute to a community where she could choose to raise children someday. Lee Martinez is already taking on leadership roles in the community and plans to continue to support the community that raised her.

Rural is not one thing, said Winchester. “Our community constantly changes, our culture constantly changes. We’re not a melting pot. We’re a stew, and we are ladeling things out and we’re adding things in all the time.”

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Cortez Community Officer

Reach out to connect on important matters for your community or your organization.

Cortez Community Officer

Nicci Crowley

Nicci prides herself on being a connector of people and ideas—a trait that’s central to her work as the LOR Foundation’s community officer in Cortez, Colorado. She listens to community members to understand the challenges they collectively face and then… Meet Nicci

More Economy Stories

Share an Idea

If you have an idea for improving quality of life in Cortez or Monte Vista, Colorado; Lander, Wyoming; Libby, Montana; Questa or Taos, New Mexico; or Weiser, Idaho, use this form to start a conversation with us.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

By using use this site or clicking "I Agree," you agree that LOR and our partners may use cookies and some personal data for personalization and analytics. Read our Privacy Policy.

I Agree