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While some metro areas are thriving, two out of three rural counties have experienced a net loss in their total number of businesses since 2010, after the recession had technically ended. According to a recent report by the Economic Innovation Group, half the new businesses started throughout the nation since 2010 were created in just 20 counties, out of more than 3,000 nationwide.
Urban America recovers from recessions, but rural America no longer seems able to. “You look all across this country and some of these places are dying,” says Seth McKee, an expert on rural politics at Texas Tech University. “They’re either going to be wiped off the map, or they’re getting smaller and smaller and there’s nothing to sustain them.”
That may be overstating the case, but it’s no longer far-fetched to talk about permanent, Appalachian-style poverty spreading across rural America. There just aren’t enough jobs. By now, it’s a familiar story that many manufacturing plants have shut down or moved and taken their jobs with them. The prevailing fear of the moment -- that robots are going to take over all the work -- has already happened in agriculture. A machine knows more about the exact fat and protein content of the milk from every cow it touches than a human hand ever would. Farmers are becoming almost as likely to plant sensors as seeds, helping them map out where their drones should apply fertilizer. Already, farms account for less than 1 percent of employment, but the number of agriculture jobs is projected to decline another 6 percent by 2024.
The old notion that jobs in timber, farming and small-town manufacturing are secure and will last for life is not just outdated but antique.
. . . Lincoln County actually has a lot of things going for it. Local officials have been able to leverage the presence of the coast not only to promote tourism and maintain a sizable fishing fleet, but also to develop marine science as an economic driver. What was at one time home to a single oceanographer’s lab has become the nexus for a range of enterprises that constitute a growing share of the local economy. Oregon State University (OSU) runs the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which houses an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies. There’s an aquarium next door that pairs well with the town’s beaches as a tourist magnet. A few years ago, Newport’s harbor became the headquarters for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific fleet, nabbing the ships from Puget Sound.
All of these projects, along with many others, came about because the Newport area has managed to build a collaborative culture, with city, county, port and state officials pulling together with private-sector actors to make things happen. “This cluster didn’t happen by accident,” says Gil Sylvia, an economist at the Hatfield center. “You start with something small and you build out the components.”