Billions at stake by government defining places as rural

A city of 1,000 people looks like a rural place to someone from Chicago, but to someone living in a city of 200 people, that population of 1,000 people seems almost urban.

And what the government defines as rural determines tens of billions of dollars a year in spending to help small towns or remote areas of the United States.

Houston, Missouri, a town of 2,500 people nestled in the hills of the Ozarks near the Arkansas border, is proud to be the hometown of famous clown Emmett Kelly. Residents boast a rural, small-town lifestyle with easy access to large, open outdoor spaces.

But for some federal grants, Houston isn’t rural.

Such was the case when city administrator Scott Avery went looking for money to bring stronger broadband to the city. The federal money for that is based on how remote, how rural a place is.

“I’m less than 100 air miles from Springfield,” Avery said. “So I don’t qualify.”

The Springfield area has approximately 500,000 residents. It’s an hour and 40 minute drive from Houston on two-lane roads

Meanwhile, Rolla, an hour north of Houston, is a town of 20,000 crossed by an interstate highway, a 240-bed hospital, the Missouri University of Science and Technology and its 6,000 students and a regional shopping center.

But since it’s more than 100 miles from Springfield and St. Louis — for the purposes of that broadband subsidy Houston couldn’t qualify for — Rolla is rural.

This is just an apparent inconsistency in how federal taxpayers’ money is spent on rural issues. These definitions may change from one federal agency to another, or within agencies across various grant programs. The US Department of Agriculture alone has more than a dozen different definitions of what is rural.

The definitions take into account things like total population, density, distance from a major city, and even the percentage of people who travel to a metropolitan area for work.

“When I look at the town of Rolla, I don’t think it fits the definition, any of the definitions of rural,” said its mayor, Lou Magdits.

And while his city didn’t apply for that particular broadband grant that Houston was barred from, Magdits isn’t shy about accepting grants meant to help small towns.

“If a grant falls and it’s rural-related,” he said, “I would probably justify myself by saying, you know, Rolla and its outskirts could probably fit that definition.”

Although Rolla is much larger than Houston and still qualifies as rural at times, Rolla competes with other communities that are much larger and still meet certain definitions of rural.

“Sometimes our county is called rural and a smaller one isn’t, but sometimes we’re not included and larger counties are,” said Dale Martin of the Rolla Regional Economic Commission.

Most economic development professionals are resigned to the rules and do their best despite their inconsistencies.

“People are a little surprised when you say anywhere here is considered urban, and it’s not,” said Bonnie Prigge, executive director of the Meramec Regional Planning Commission, which assists eight counties. “We would say everything in our area is rural, but we have to follow the rules.”

Although the many definitions of rural frustrate some communities, there can be a benefit.

“With the different definitions, there might be other grants that we might consider that they might be eligible for. And if we had one definition, there might not be a grant to solve this problem,” Prigge said.

Avery said that City of Houston employees don’t have time to chase after opportunities only to find that rural town isn’t rural enough.

Jonathan Ahl


St. Louis Public Radio

The Eatin’ Place Diner has the kind of small-town feel that Houston, Missouri, is known for, even though some federal programs don’t consider the town “rural.”

“When we look at these communities and compare them, one size does not fit all is true,” Avery said. “But at the same time, why can’t we make sure the systems work everywhere?

Instead of rural America being treated as a place that can be defined by mileage and population rules, he said, it should be defined by communities that have similar issues and need help. .

This is the approach taken by Ann Morrison Smith of the Missouri Department of Economic Development. She is a project manager based in her hometown of West Plains, which has a population of 11,000, and works with nearby communities, including Houston.

“We find the fingerprint of each community and the way it functions and behaves to be so unique on its own,” Smith said.

In the meantime, the question of the definition of rural is to become more important as metropolitan areas expand and small towns that were once decidedly rural become suburban bedroom communities.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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