Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In and near amenity-rich rural places, "a constant sort of sprawl"

I noted earlier today the advertised NPR program about rural gentrification -- at least I thought that was going to be the topic. Turned out, the Morning Edition program today was about Flagstaff, Arizona, population 52,894 in 2000, and almost certainly higher today based on what the report told us. That makes Flagstaff and Coconino County, with a total population of 127,500, metropolitan, though not by much. (Top photo of Flagstaff by Cindy Carpien of NPR).

Flagstaff, the story reported, is one of those amenity-rich destinations where housing and other costs have sky-rocketed in recent years, in part because newcomers from places like California move in. Because those ex-Californians can afford more based on what they got from the sale of their CA residences, they drive up housing prices in heretofore overlooked destinations, like Flagstaff (a/k/a "Flag" to several of the locals interviewed). Here's an excerpt from the story that gives a sense of what is going on in Flagstaff:

All over the country, newcomers are moving to scenic communities like Flagstaff, helping to drive up housing costs. Many of the towns are trying desperately to create more affordable housing. For instance, Aspen, Colo., now requires developers to make 60 percent of new homes affordable to lower-income buyers.

But these efforts simply can't keep up with the demand. And it's not just day care workers, teachers and firefighters who are squeezed out of the housing market in Flagstaff — medical professionals and college professors can't afford it, either.

Turns out, the more rural angle in the story relates to Winslow, Arizona, 60 miles away, which has become something of a bedroom community for Flagstaff. Folks who can no longer afford to live in Flagstaff often choose to live in Winslow, population 9,520. In the words of the NPR report, its status and growth are now linked to the overflow from Flagstaff, particularly long-time Flagstaff residents who are now priced out of that market. Here's another excerpt:

Aaron Fullerton drives 60 miles twice a day through the empty desert between Flagstaff and Winslow. Fullerton grew up in Flagstaff; he still works there. But when it came time to buy his first home, he bought in Winslow, for $150,000.

For that in Flagstaff, Fullerton said, "you'd be lucky to get an apartment that's been remodeled and called a townhome."

His new 2,000 square-foot home is on a barren, windswept seven acres just south of Winslow.

"You know, it's not Flag," Fullerton said. "But I'm happy with what I've bought. But who knows if I'll ever be able to move anywhere near Flag."

* * *
Indeed, the very fastest-growing rural areas are now the affordable outskirts of super-trendy amenity towns like Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Park City, Utah — places like Aaron Fullerton's new home, Winslow. Just 10 years ago, Winslow was run-down and losing population.
Photo bottom right is of the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, which was recently renovated by a couple from California, Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion. Affeldt has since become Winslow's mayor.

The story goes on to quote demographer Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire, "So there is a constant sort of sprawl if you will, going on in many of these areas." Reminds me of what I wrote a few days ago in relation to the anticipated population growth in the U.S. over the next several decades: non-metropolitan places -- not just cities --need to be planning for such growth.

Coincidentally, this NPR story ran on the very day I was re-reading Sonya Salamon's, From Hometown to Nontown: Rural Community Effects of Suburbanization, Rural Sociology 68 (1) 2003, pp 1-24. This article features just a little slice of the issues taken up in her 2003 book, Newcomers to Old Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland. Salamon's writing takes up the clash of cultures that often result, well, as the title says, when newcomers arrive in old towns. The former tend to be more affluent and consumption-oriented than the more egalitarian long-time residents, whose families have often been resident for several generations and who rely on their family reputations as a sort of social capital. Such newcomers are also less likely than the old-timers to invest in community and civic institutions, and they are less likely to see children and youth as a community resource for whom all share a certain responsibility. Salamon's work was sited in the Midwest, but reading about what is happening in northern Arizona made me wonder about the extent of such conflicts of culture in these amenity-rich rural places.

And that brings me to a talk I heard at the Rural Sociological Society last month. Peter B. Nelson of Middlebury College and John Cromartie of the USDA Economic Research Service are studying population churn in amenity-rich counties. Their focus is nonmetropolitan counties with high population turnover, but little net gain or loss. Most of the counties they identified as experiencing this phenomenon were in the West, with a few in Kansas and a few in Arkansas, as I recall. Virtually all were west of the Mississippi River. They found that the character of the places changed as a consequence of the population churn, even absent significant net gain or loss in population. They also found that the demographic change did not necessarily mean the "graying" of non-metro places. Significant numbers of newcomers are under the age of 55. The findings of Nelson and Cromartie may be relevant to Winslow's future, depending on its growth or stability, in the wake of happenings in neighboring Coconino County.

As it stands now, Winslow is expected to grow. Indeed, it's size may double by 2020, according to the NPR story. Meanwhile, residents of Winslow seem less resistant to change than their neighbors in Flagstaff. Here's a final excerpt about how Mayor Affeldt and his wife are "helping transform Winslow into the place they want to live."

"We put down roots here," Affeldt said.

"I think most Americans are kind of groundless because we move all the time, we're not attached to a place, and there's something really compelling about this particular place. And it's become our home."

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