Northern Valley Beacon

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Life in Aberdeen

While I was a candidate for the state house, I asked a market research organization I work for from time to time if I could use data from some of their studies in the campaign. They finally answered back and told me what I could use and what was considered proprietary information paid for by their clients.

Begin with the fact that the area that comprises the Aberdeen "micropolitan" region consists of about 14 counties. In the mid-1980s, it led the nation in the rate of outmigration of people, according to data cited by Dun & Bradstreet. The severity of the outmigration and lack of inmigration can be seen in the statistic that, during the same time period, the enrollment in the Aberdeen Public School District dropped by 6,000 students. The big question facing government and civic leaders is whether that bleeding away of young people has slowed down or stopped and what that demographic trend portends for the community and the region.

The slump in Aberdeen population was related closely to the demise of the railroads. When Aberdeen was, in fact, a hub for the intersection of five railroads, it was a distribution center for the region. In other words, goods and materials came to Aberdeen and were distributed from there throughout the region. That role formed the economic structure of the town. People from the region came to Aberdeen to do business because that is where the goods and services were centered. A pattern of life involved people coming to town from the rural areas to shop. They, then, ate dinner in town and went to a movie or some other entertainment before heading home.

The biggest factor in the decline of business and population in Aberdeen has been the consolidation of farming and ranching. In one of the market studies, that counted how many farmsteads have been abandoned and/or demolished, 80 percent of the placesin South Dakota that once accommodated families in rural areas and small towns became vacant in the late 20th century. This decline in occupied homes correlates with the decline in small businesses in small towns.

Another way of looking at the matter is that farm productivity is rising, but the ability of an acre of land to sustain the people working it has dropped by as much as 80 percent. The cost-price squeeze that farmers have experienced has had a severe effect on both the demographics and the economy of the regioin. All of what is referred to as the Buffalo Commons region has experienced this decline, but the Aberdeen micropolitan area has felt it with particular severity.

A point made by market analysts who have been brought in to advise planners over the years is that Aberdeen would need to regain its role as a distribution center or replace that role with something else. There is a history of resistance to changing the patterns of life in Aberdeen, and that resistance aggravated the decline in working-age population.

When large organizations invest in a community by building large facilities, they do so on the basis of detailed and thoroughly analyzed market studies. For example, at one time Osco Drug intended to expand by building an Osco-Buttery store on Sixth Ave. That plan was canceled and Osco eventually pulled out of Aberdeen altogether. Other drug stores that closed at about the same time were a Walgreen agency and a White Drug Store. Their revenues were either stagnant or falling, and market studies did not show that revenues had any possibility of rising again. When I came to Aberdeen, there were four men's stores on Main Street along with two department stores, and another men's store in Super City Mall. The two department stores closed and later reopened at Lakeview Mall, but there are no men's stores in town. This signifies how cultural patterns intertwine with economic factors in affecting the character of communities.

Some things have changed in the economic picture. Menards is expanding to build its Aberdeen store into one of its biggest facilities. Wal-Mart is doing the same. Walgreens has been looking at properties. One hears murmurs that Target is planning an expansion.

Some of Aberdeen's role as a distribution center has been regained. Contractors from the region come into Menards, for example, to pick up supplies as soon as the store opens. Its parking lot shows cars from other counties and North Dakota in the lot at closing. Wal-Mart shows a similar pattern of traffic. Ardo is one of the biggest John Deere dealers in the upper Midwest. Some of the automobile dealers in Aberdeen now carry some of the biggest inventories in the region.

The expansion of U.S. 12 to four-lanes to I-29 has facilitated traffic to and from Aberdeen, especially for trucks. However, railroad upgrades have contributed, too. The proposed beef processing plant in Aberdeen falls into the pattern of a distribution center.

One problem is in the division of the local economy between production and service. The financial industry, particularly debt-collection, has seen some growth in Aberdeen, but manufacturing and the creation of marketable entities lags. Firms dependent upon high-tech operations have not succeeded in Aberdeen.

The problem for people who make policy is that the region offers a rural way of life that is attractive, but it does not have the kind of jobs needed to sustain people who prefer that way of life. Its best chance of attracting those kind of jobs is to continue development of the community as a distribution center.

What needs to be studied is just how that can be done. And that gets into the quality of educational programs that prepare people for the kind of creative and intellectual enterprises that expand the economy by expanding the culture. When young people leave a community because it does not afford them the cultural opportunities, the economic opportunities, or the lifestyle they want, there are many people whose attitude is good riddance.

These are tough issues. Is anyone out there confronting them?

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