How to ‘shrink smart’



November 22, 2019 - 4:21 PM

The concept of “shrinking smart” is accepting that as a rural community we’re probably not going to reverse a 100-year trend of losing population. At best, we may be able to stabilize. Either way, it is not a predictor of doom and gloom and in fact we may even begin to grow.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.


‘SHRINK SMART” is a phrase coined by Iowa State University researchers who have studied 99 Iowa communities with populations of 500 to 10,000 over the past 25 years.

From their studies, team members have come to define a town in four ways:

• Smart shrinking towns are losing population but gaining in quality of life measures

• Declining towns are losing both population and quality of life

• Thriving towns are gaining in both population and quality of life

• Adverse growing towns are gaining in population but losing in quality of life.

A shrink smart community provides not only essential services — public utilities, law enforcement, healthcare — but looks to improve its quality of life.

I can think of lots of local examples. The most recent was the overwhelming victory of a $25.5 million bond issue to build a new elementary school as well as a science center for the high school and new heating and cooling systems for the middle school.

Those three measures speak volumes about our commitment to future generations and that we regard their education as paramount. We also came to realize that our aging schools are a turnoff to prospective young families looking to work here.

In that same vein, the school district’s move to provide free preschool for 4-year-olds is huge. Educators say having all incoming kindergartners close to the same level will make a difference for the rest of their school years.

Funded by a $139,610 state education grant, the program is for one year only. Our hope is that it is not only renewed, but expanded to include 3-year-olds.

The fact that our county health rankings rose by a whopping 46 places when compared to other Kansas counties between 2018 and 2019, is another indication we’re on the right track. Allen County ranked 38th out of 103 Kansas counties in health outcomes, which includes premature death, low birthweight, life expectancy, diabetes and HIV prevalence.

It shows the success of local efforts to build hiking and biking trails, recruit physicians, increase opportunities for physical activity and improve access to fresh food through farmers markets.

Another example is Allen Community College’s plans to build a new activity center. When first publicized, it appeared to have a singular focus of serving only the ACC community. But  when others saw ACC’s plans as an opportunity to make it more inclusive, the college welcomed their participation.

A public forum to discuss the possibilities is at 6 p.m., Dec. 16 at the ACC theatre.                                                           

“We want to come up with the best possible plan that can serve everyone in the county,” Masterson said.

It’s when public and private bodies coordinate efforts that a community transitions from being stable, to thriving, the experts say, much as Iola Industries did in helping bring G&W Foods to town and A Bolder Humboldt is doing to bring new enterprises their way. And as Moran has done with its Marmaton Market and 54 Fitness Center. And LaHarpe’s Ray Maloney did to launch a regional tech center with local schools and area colleges. And as Thrive Allen County has done to help develop the walking and biking trails that weave across our entire county.

Below the radar are volunteers, civic organizations and churches that help make our communities better.          


HOW A TOWN is “wired” is what makes a difference. Are people willing to come together for the benefit of the community? Do they give to causes? If a project fails, do they pick up the pieces and move on?