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Solutions for Strengthening Economic Development in Rural Communities

Rural Lab lessons from Maine, North Dakota and Wisconsin

Rural communities have unique obstacles to — and opportunities for — economic development. Some of the challenges include the out-migration of young people, industry downturns and the struggle to keep downtowns vital and welcoming.

Solutions are as different as the communities, but all have in common a can-do attitude and appreciation of building upon on strengths. Examples include:

Overcoming Out-Migration in North Dakota

News clippings and postcards about Strengthen ND

Images courtesy Strengthen ND

(1) An article about a young couple who returned to North Dakota after living in California. (2) A article about a man who moved from Ghana to North Dakota. (3) Strengthen ND postcards with feedback from residents about "the importance of rural North Dakota!"

Across the state, only 1,000 North Dakotans are available to fill 30,000 to 40,000 available jobs. Depopulation has been especially acute in the 340 communities with populations of 5,000 or fewer. Strengthen ND developed a social media campaign based on the values of home, community, opportunity, land and legacy to increase the acceptance of new residents.

The organization then helped communities identify and mobilize assets — such as under-utilized farms, abandoned buildings, and existing arts and cultural initiatives — to create local economic development initiatives that could attract new residents and encourage young people to remain.

For instance, in Tuttle, North Dakota (population 59), an unused school was transformed into the Tuttle Rural Innovation Center. Space in the building is used for community activities and houses small businesses, such as Guardian Grains, where DeAnna and Kelly Lozensky mill flour and make pasta from the wheat and grains they grow on their regenerative farm near Minot. 

As documented by stories collected by the ”Strengthen ND Narrative Change Project,” the state is attracting new residents from as far away as Ghana and as near as Minnesota. It's also, in some cases, convincing native North Dakotans to keep their roots in the state or return home. 

Attracting People to a Plaza in Wisconsin

3 photos of of a public plaza in Cuba City, Wisconsin

Photos courtesy Cuba City, Wisconsin

Long an eyesore and dumping ground for trash and abandoned vehicles, Presidential Plaza was revitalized in 2020 with the addition of (1) a ground mural representing the Mississippi RIver, (2) a sod lawn, new trees, seating, outdoor games (3) and more.

To attract and retain businesses to its Main Street, Cuba City, Wisconsin (pop. 2,159), formed a downtown task force with representation by high school students, older residents and all ages in-between. The group supported the redevelopment of Presidential Plaza to create a community gathering place and, in doing so, boosting local business.

Using a 2020 AARP Community Challenge grant, the city was able to equip the park with free Wi-Fi, outdoor game tables, planters and benches. The new space has flourished, providing a place for residents of all ages to gather, connect and support local businesses. For sustained economic prosperity, Cuba City also had to attract tourists.

Bob Jones, then the city’s economic development director, partnered with businesses and local organizations to issue press releases to local media about local activities. (The coverage was often picked up by larger, regional papers.) The result has been an economic district that attracts visitors from both in and out of the state.

Reimagining a Maine Town

6 images of winter activities in Millinocket, Maine

Photos 1, 4, 5, 6: Age-Friendly Millinocket. Photos 2, 3: Melissa Stanton, AARP

(1) Ice skating during the Katahdin Snowdown. (2) Two runners from Maryland waiting for the start of the 2019 Millinocket Marathon. (3) Ski gear for borrowing from the Millinocket Memorial Library. (4) Ski gear supplies for use during the Katahdin Snowdown. (5 and 6) Visitors hike in the woods to read a story that is posted on signs along the StoryWalk trail.

A decade of economic and population declines followed the closure in 2008 of the paper mill in Millinocket, Maine (pop. 4,269). Today, the community leverages its heritage, community culture and abundant natural places and resources to invest in the economy and attract new residents.

Inspired by its participation in the AARP Livable Communities Rural Lab and a series of community listening sessions, the Age-Friendly Millinocket committee received a 2020 AARP Community Challenge grant for the Katahdin Snowdown. (Follow the link to watch an AARP video about the event.)

Named after the nearby Mount Katahdin, which is the both the northern end of the Appalachian Trail and the highest peak on the East Coast, the winter festival attracts residents of all ages for a day of outdoor fun. With the mountain trails closed during the winter, the Katahdin Snowdown contributes to the town’s efforts to rebrand itself as a four-season community that has what businesses need to start in or relocate to Northern Maine.

Another winter activity is the Millinocket Marathon, which attracts runners and fans to town in early December for full- or half-marathon routes through the community and along the scenic “Golden Road” to Baxter State Park. Founded in 2015, the race itself is free to join, with "the only requirement for runners is to generously support local businesses and contribute to the Katahdin region in some way."

The activities build on partnerships between the municipality; healthcare, business and cultural institutions; and outdoor recreation initiatives such as the Katahdin Gear Library, which is located in the public library but is an equipment lending library for cross-country skis, snowshoes, mountain bikes and more.

Speedy Solutions

Each of the aforementioned communities enlisted a quick-action, low-cost tactic toward achieving its goals.

  • LEARN: To develop an economic development strategy based on a community’s current strengths, conduct a postcard campaign or community listening sessions. StrengthenND mailed 3,000 postcards (pictured above) and received 600 responses to the question, “Tell us your personal view on the importance of rural North Dakota! (in 15 words or less).”

  • BE A TRUSTED PARTNER: The local government in Cuba City, Wisconsin, worked with businesses to issue press releases highlighting activities and businesses in the downtown. In addition to being of interest to local readers, the content was picked up by larger, regional newspapers that now count on the city as a reliable source for news stories and articles about things to do.

  • TEST AN IDEA WITH A QUICK-ACTION PROJECT: Age-Friendly Millinocket received a $5,000 Community Challenge Grant to develop the Katahdin Snowdown in Millinocket, Maine. The money was used to purchase an outdoor speaker system, portable benches, easy-up tents and other community event equipment.


Patricia Oh, Ph.D., is a senior program manager at the University of Maine Center on Aging. She works closely with Maine's age-friendly and lifelong communities ( and with the AARP Livable Communities team, supporting outreach to rural communities and municipalities that have joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. 

Additional reporting by Melissa Stanton, editor, AARP Livable Communities.

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AARP Rural Lab

This article comes out of the lessons learned and shared through the AARP Rural Lab, a monthly online gathering of leaders from rural and remote communities invited by AARP state offices. Participants receive access to expert assistance and opportunities for connecting with peers nationwide.

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