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Reaching for Rural Renewal

Lawmakers propose a new Homestead Act to save dying Midwestern farm towns. Locals call the idea 'useless.'


MEADOW GROVE, Neb. — Memories dance through the decay of this small town, through the wide leafy blankness of Main Street.

The old-timers gabbing over coffee in the lone cafe snatch at the memories and lay them out in lists. They catalog the businesses that once thrived here but are now dead: Three groceries. Two hardware stores. Two farm equipment dealers. Produce stands. Barber shops. A car lot.

Remember the theater? Lawrence Welk played there. And the movies, projected on a brick wall come summer. A dime per picture. Drew quite a crowd. Especially the talkies. "They put that voice in and boy, that was really uptown," recalled Dale Inness, 76.

The memories are bright as ever. But the town they haunt is fading out, fast. About all that's left on Main Street now is a bar, a credit union, a post office, a newspaper office with one employee and a might-be-open-might-not lumber store.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 375 words Type of Material: Correction
Rural renewal--In a July 2 Section A story on rural renewal, a quote was incorrectly attributed to Lawrence Sinclair. The comment was made by Jim Rudnick, a dairy farm consultant in Meadow Grove, Neb.

It's the same all across the heartland. From the Rocky Mountains to the Missouri River, from North Dakota to north Texas, rural America is emptying. The decline has been apparent for decades as a slow, sad wasting. But the latest census figures suggest the hollowing of the heartland has reached a crisis point. Seventy percent of rural Midwest counties have suffered drastic population loss in the last two decades. The average drop: at least 30%.

Now, there's a new proposal to reverse this slide--by paying people to give rural life a chance.

The senators touting it speak with fervor of rekindling the spirit of the American frontier, of drawing a new generation of pioneers to spark life in boarded-up farm towns.

But out here in Meadow Grove--population 311 and falling--folks are not sure the spirit of the past can be rekindled. And some are deeply suspicious of any federal effort to try.

"All this pretending we're going to keep yesterday alive, it's stupid," said Lawrence Sinclair, 48, a dairy farm consultant. "These small towns, they're history."

Sen. Charles Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, refuse to write off rural America as a relic.

Drawing inspiration from the Homestead Act of 1862--which gave free land to pioneers settling the frontier--they have proposed offering financial incentives to anyone who will commit to saving communities like Meadow Grove.

The Homestead Economic Opportunity Act would give tax breaks to people buying homes or setting up businesses in shrinking rural counties. Recent college graduates who move to these areas could write off up to half their student loans. A venture capital fund would funnel start-up money to rural entrepreneurs.

And the federal government would set up special tax-free retirement accounts for small-town residents, matching some of their savings dollar for dollar. To be eligible for the incentives, residents would have to live in a struggling rural community for at least five years.

Hagel acknowledges that it will be tough to get the bill through Congress. He points out, though, that America pulled together--spending billions--to fix up inner cities during the "urban renewal" movement of the 1960s and '70s. He maintains a similar coalition could be mobilized around rural renewal.

"If we don't do something," Dorgan said, "we won't have much of a heartland at all."

Trouble is, at least here in Meadow Grove, it's hard to find folks who think doing something will help.

At the cafe, at a table with an American flag stuck in a vase, Inness shrugged. "There isn't any future here. It's over," he said.

"I think we pretty much all agree on that," 62-year-old Roger Suckstorf added.

The seven retired farmers cradling coffee cups nodded.

"It's useless," muttered Jack Halsey, 69. "Nothing's ever going to bring [rural communities] back."

Keith Turner, an economist retired from the University of Nebraska, agrees. Already, he said, the government has wasted money preserving the infrastructure of towns clearly on the wane--fixing roads and water towers, putting in sewers that serve fewer and fewer people. The federal government also funds programs to bring doctors, nurses and teachers to rural towns and some struggling urban areas. This year, it has placed 2,360 health professionals, at a cost of $147 million.

"We keep putting dollars into so-called saving these towns. All you're doing is prolonging their demise," said Turner, who lives in Union, Neb. (pop. 200). "When a town loses its reason for being, why be there?"

Large Operations

Replace Family Farms

The prairie used to be laid out in neat squares of 640 acres. Every square was anchored by four farmsteads--each with a barn, a silo, a family home. Every 15 or 20 squares, there was a town with groceries and machine shops, schools and churches, feed stores and grain elevators.

You can still see the squares when you fly over the Plains. Only, there's no longer a home in every corner. Agricultural operations now are so big that one farm may sprawl across thousands of acres, pushing farmsteads farther and farther apart.

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