KELLOGG — Economist Sam Wolkenhauer from the Idaho Department of Labor presented at last week’s Silver Valley Chamber breakfast and his topic was a common one in Shoshone County.
What Wolkenhauer spoke about was growth, but instead the usual discussion centered on how the community can or could grow, he posed the question, should they be seeking growth.
“Is growth good?” Wolkenhauer asked. “Everywhere I go people want to know how they can grow their communities and attract businesses. What I want to do is discuss if that is a feasible or desirable goal for small communities.”
Citing one of biggest business stories in America from last year, Wolkenhauer discussed how Amazon choosing their second headquarter location was a prime (pun intended) example on how both of those aforementioned goals are not always achieved, even with the addition of more jobs and resources.
Roughly 140 American cities submitted bids to bring the estimated 50,000 jobs to their communities, which Wolkenhauer found humorous due to actual ability for many of these cities to host.
“Only about four of the cities who submitted bids were actually big enough to absorb Amazon’s second headquarters,” Wolkenhauer said. “They were wanting to bring in 50,000 people which is an enormous amount. Spokane submitted a bid, their current population is about 350,000, so they were talking about bringing in a company with a workforce of about 1/7 the size of their city.”
New York, Dallas-Fort Worth and Philadelphia were really the only true options, and even after being selected, New York decided it was too big of an influx to absorb and Amazon’s second headquarters ended up broken into multiple projects.
“Everyone, everywhere, not just in rural communities, but also in big cities is obsessed with growth, but we never stop to question when is growth desirable,” Wolkenhauer said. “Because growth brings a lot of downsides with it. It does things to property values, brings congestion, brings competition that can hurt existing businesses.”
Wolkenhauer’s point was centered around the idea that if a major metropolis like New York can’t handle growth, maybe the goals of growth in small communities should be reassessed.
From there, Wolkenhauer pivoted back to places like Shoshone County, where small communities like the ones in the Silver Valley have transitioned from thriving areas into places where opioid use is an issue, unemployment is high, and consequently populations continue to decline.
And while those factors are all very real, the idea that simply adding jobs in the community will change these issues is less than accurate according to the economist.
“A lot of people would argue that the problems are purely economic, that it’s because jobs dried up and went away or because of the nature of work changed or something of that nature, but this really doesn't tell the whole story,” Wolkenhauer said. “So if you take this approach that the problem facing rural communities is just one of jobs, if we could just attract companies to bring in jobs and just retrain the workers, then everything would be better. I don’t think that’s quite right and the more we study this issue, the more we realize it’s really not an economic issue purely. More what we’re facing is communities, long established communities, communities with a lot of continuity in their character and their culture that have lost their sense of place, identity and character.”
These issues, which Wolkenhauer believes to be more sociological and societal in nature, can be combated by reinforcing a greater sense of community without requiring extensive growth.
In rural communities such as this one, the data often shows where things went wrong, like the closing of major mines and the decrease of the mining industry as a whole.
As economists like Wolkenhauer examine this data, they see secondary issues such as increased drug use, declining marriage rates, increased divorce rates and more broken families.
“Those things don’t go in the order that you expect them to, so if you had to guess what order the problems occurring might go, you might guess jobs disappeared and then drug problems and then that leads to falling marriage rates,” Wolkenhauer said. “But actually it’s the other way around, falling marriage rates predated drug problems and so rethinking the way that these problems are connected can help us understand how we help our communities. Because we have to have the right chain reaction in our brains to understand how to fix these problems.”
From there, the data can be broken down by other factors like age and gender, but it comes back to the concept that making local areas more community related is one of the biggest steps in making rural areas more positive places to live and exist despite any existing shortcomings.
“We’ve found that people who are struggling are not just struggling because they lost their jobs, but they’re struggling with the social isolation that accompanies it,” Wolkenhauer said. “When we think about these people, we need to remember that it’s not going to be fixed by just adding more jobs because there are social relationships that need to be repaired. These issues might be linked to economic problems, but they aren’t necessarily going to be fixed just because we fixed the economic problems.”
Which leads right into what Wolkenhauer and other experts believe is the best next move for rural communities like the Silver Valley.
“The way to help your community is not to be hyper focused on how to attract new employers, it’s finding ways to repair society, it’s finding ways to repair social isolation and repair families,” Wolkenhauer said. “This is where rural communities have an advantage because it’s much easier for a small community to address the societal issues. What we’re trying to encourage people who live in rural communities to do is to think about the social fabric of their community and really think about that word community.”
It differs from community to community, but Wolkenhauer believes community groups, churches and schools are great ways for people to get connected and find that sense of community.