City Organizing in Rural Places – Is Your City Prepared?

August 29, 2012

US-Southwest Banks

City Planning in Rural Areas – Is Your City Ready?

Rural Planning: A Case Study

The concepts of planning and structured development have been largely ignored by planners and politicians alike when it comes to rural areas. For a number or reasons, urban planning has stolen the spotlight. In the coming decades, rural planning will be increasingly important to regional communities such as the one being studied in this essay. With clear cut goals, measurable metrics, and flexibility within the city government and community, planning can be an enormous success.

No plan is perfect, but having one to use as a guideline is better than the alternative ad-hoc solutions sometimes proposed to fix serious problems. Marshall Minnesota is a good example of how to effectively use planning in the unique economic situations that occur in what amounts to a rural suburb. In their 1996 comprehensive plan, the city identified what collective goals the community had and came up with steps that needed to be taken in order to achieve these goals. Plans require a good deal of flexibility toward what the market dictates and thus in 2004, the plan was updated to reflect these market changes.

Overall, Marshall stands out as a shining bastion of what can be accomplished with proper planning in rural areas and is an example that should be heeded by other communities with similar economies, political structures, and goals.

Urban planning, smart growth, planned development; all of these have been buzzwords in the planning business for some time now. The terms all tend to give credit to the idea that the only governments in need effective planning and management are urban in geography and economy. This also suggests that these are the areas where planning is standing on a frontier of modern government administration.

Rarely, however, does the question of rural planning come up in any serious discourse. For a variety of reasons, these local governments have been all but ignored. Many persons living in rural localities may wonder why this has occurred and what they have missed out on. It is reasonable to infer that it has been ignored because urban problems simply “seem” bigger to planners.

While it is true that urban governments face difficult issues, namely transportation, infrastructure, poverty, poor residential development and job loss, that certainly does not mean that rural areas don’t have their fair share of problems to deal with. In fact, perhaps the problems of rural Minnesota have been ignored for so long because no one is willing to offer a solution to them.

Rural communities such as the City of Marshall also deal with big problems; they are simply different problems. These problems include population flight of younger generations to more urban areas, economies facing the rough transition from agriculture to service based, lack of jobs, poor residential housing availability, and lack of opportunity for entrepreneurs.

It’s natural then that planning should be just as valuable a tool for getting communities back on track and fiscally healthy in rural areas as it is in urban regions.

The City of Marshall realized this and in 1996 developed a plan to fix such problems and by doing so, acted as a role model for other rural governments. In 2004 the city updated the plan to reflect changes in development and build upon existing goals that had been set.

Marshall Minnesota: A Rural Suburb

Marshall is an interesting place to study for a variety of reasons. It’s located about 143 miles southwest of the Twin Cities and about 90 miles from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Marshall was first founded in 1870 and has changed from a largely agriculturally based economy to one that is far more industrial and service oriented in nature.

Marshall also has a great deal of economic activity. Marshall houses the corporate headquarters for the Schwan Food Company, one of the largest food vendors in the world. Beyond that, Marshall also has a municipally owned ethanol plant and liquor store, Southwest Minnesota State University, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, A U. S. Bank Corporate Branch, and a variety of small businesses including fast food, clothing, and financial service providers. It is the regional hub for a great deal of economic activity and is constantly being developed. Marshall boasts a population of over 13,000 and has a highly structured and professional city government.

While it may sound like a typical suburb, it is quite different because of its location and surrounding economies. Towns and Cities bordering Marshall rarely exceed populations of 5,000 and some are quite a bit lower. Because of this unique situation, Marshall has a variety of rural problems even though it functions much more like a suburb.

To address such threats to continued prosperity and growth, several goals and objectives were stated in the city plan, which is a compressive document covering key issues to the survival of the city. The key goals focus on the need to create affordable residential housing, revitalize the downtown business area, and create economic development. These were goals that were all measurable, realistic, and attainable.

Every plan must have an end goal in mind and the goal must be measurable and attainable, otherwise it has little value. The three biggest areas that the city wanted to target involved creating an affordable and stable real estate market, revitalize the downtown district, and use economic development to create a greater labor economy for would be residents. These all seem to be designed with the goals of stopping population flight, attracting new residents, and ensuring that there was an adequate labor market for the community. In many ways, Marshall has made progress at achieving the goal sin all of these areas, however, that is not to say that it has been perfect or for that matter is entirely attributable to the plan. The plan is acts as a guide and the market has largely filled in the gaps.

Goal I: Growth in the Residential Real Estate Market and Affordable Housing

Marshall targeted a number of anticipated growth areas; these were called study areas labeled and then broke them up into subdivisions for further study. They are located in the southern, eastern, and western areas of the city.

The predictions for the southern areas, labeled D and F, were largely correct. These areas have seen the greatest volume in both sales and appreciation. The developments are largely middle to upper class and the lots sell at a higher price than anywhere else in Marshall, currently going anywhere from $ 30,000 to $ 50,000 depending on location. If you contrast this to some of the older regions of Marshall were lots are selling around $ 10,000 to $ 19,000, it is easy to see a stark difference. Also, the frequency of residential development in the D and F have been in the range of 5-10 lot sales per year whereas many other developments have only 1 or 2, and sometimes none at all. The goals of increased residential housing and a stable market for this area were clearly met by the plan.

The second major area expected to grow is labeled E. It is positioned toward the east, surrounding the new high school. According to my research, very little activity has occurred in this area. Perhaps it’s because it is directly off of the highway or there is an aversion to being near either Southwest Minnesota State University or the high school across the street from it, but for whatever reason, this area has failed to grow. It could also be due to the fact that a substantial amount of land is still held by agricultural business persons or the fact that there is an utter lack of infrastructure to support development. These are certainly factors that need to be considered when the city evaluates and revises the plan.

The third area expected to grow is labeled “A” and is on the west end of town. This was originally expected to be a commercial, residential mix, however the “technology park” did not occur as Marshall had envisioned as the only corporation to settle there is currently U. S. Bank. However, the residential market is booming with the Parkway Addition growing very fast indeed. The actual lot sales occurring here are indeed high in volume, but quite a bit less in price. According to my research, the lots here sell in the $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 range. However, this can be considered a good thing as it is quite affordable to lower-middle class families to build here, and they have been building quite a bit and at an extremely rapid pace. This could attract young families wanting a stable housing market and a nice area to raise a family in.

In 2006, a community survey of Marshall residents was conducted by the Neighborhood House Organization titled “Building a Better Community. ” The survey was a broad in scope with issues ranging from development to diversity; however, it yielded some interesting answers. In response to a question on whether there was affordable single family housing available in Marshall, 19% found it to be lacking, but a total of over 65 % found to it be plentiful, marginally adequate, or adequate, and 16 % didn’t know. This shows that a majority of people agree that the housing market in Marshall is indeed affordable and also shows that effective planning for the anticipated growth areas had a dramatic effect on the housing market. This is an instance were rural planning has been successful.

Goal II. Revitalization of the Downtown Business District The downtown area of Marshall has been under heavy criticism for some time now, namely because of an apparent lack of parking. I concur with the statement in that I agree there is a problem with parking, however, it doesn’t seem to be a lack of it, and rather it simply placed and dispersed in strange areas. For example, an ample amount of parking exists on both backsides of the main street, however, it is somewhat disguised by the large buildings and obstructed by poor alleyway layout (they are one way for the most part). Nonetheless the city has responded to this area which is positioned directly in the center of the city and named study area “A”.

One of the odd factors is that this region does not show up in the anticipated growth areas map and thus it seems that it’s perhaps poor use of resources and city dollars to spend money renovating it. It would appear that citizens feel fairly strongly on the issue. For example, in the aforementioned 2006 survey, residents response to the statement “Downtown Marshall is need of revitalization” with 61 % of respondents in agreement.

Many potential solutions were proposed, but it seems that there will be a combination of option A ( block 11), which simply involves expanding the main street and option C, which will be a transition from parallel parking to angular parking, which would increase the overall available parking space to be used. All and all this would cost a projected a projected $ 204,850. 80 and create well over 100 new parking spaces.

Initially, it seemed that the old middle school would be prime ground for a parking lot, but in a recent zoning meeting, Carr Development proposed a small commercial park that would help with economic development. This would be a substantial benefit to the downtown district and create a good deal of economic development opportunities for small businesses. There was very little opposition to the park from local residents and the zoning board re-zoned the area from R-1 (residential) to B-1 (business).

In the aforementioned survey of Marshall Residents conducted in 2006, development of the downtown area was a major interest. When asked if Marshall needs more retail stores, specialty stores and department stores, 69 % strongly agreed and 23 % agreed in general with only 8 % in disagreement. This is a substantial majority and suggests that Marshall is indeed on the right track in meeting community demands by encouraging private-public alliances and developing the downtown area.

Goal III. Population Decline and Economic Development in Marshall

This is an area that Marshall Residents have the strongest opinion on. Survey data shows that a whopping 96 percent of residents feel that “to keep Marshall economically healthy, it is important that the population continues to steadily grow. ” Population problems occur in Marshall chiefly because of a lack in diversity of job markets. While there are a few very large industries in town, they tend to be either designed for the professional or the blue collar worker.

This is something Marshall has realized and taken action on by incorporation an economic development component into their plan. A major component of this was to hire an economic development director, who is currently Marc Hanson who recently signed a ten year agreement with the city to work on commercial development in 2006. His job entails attracting new businesses to the area, helping entrepreneurs gain resources to initiate a start up, and bring jobs into the city.

Part of planning is being able to support proposals with empirical data that will show they are feasible. Marshall seems to be moving toward that direction and understanding that the future of the downtown area is not a retail hub, but rather a series of office parks and service vendors. Empirical research conducted by the Dahlgren, Shardlow, and Uban firm suggests that this something to take quite seriously in the coming years.

In their 2006 commercial market survey, some of the key findings were that land use must be mixed both residentially and commercially, such as the case with Robert Carr’s aforementioned office park proposal), that the transition from retail to service and office park must be embraced, and that the shopping/economic needs of senior citizens must be met. One of the biggest concerns is that a community the size of Marshall has substantially weak commercial activity compared to other communities with similar land use. The largest segments of the population are in the 45-54 and 55 to 64 age brackets. However, it is expected that marshall will experience a large decline in the number of adults in the 35-44 bracket.

There are two sides to this that it appears the plan is dealing with. On the one hand, the 45-54 and 55-64 age cohorts are likely in mid career and have a good deal of discretionary income, perhaps then, discouraging retail development is a poor idea as this category would be a prime target. By focusing on maintaining a stable real estate market, Marshall can keep those mid-career professionals here, which is likely why it is an important part of the city plan. On the other hand, perhaps the reason the early career bracket is leaving is because of lack of economic opportunities. This would suggest that the city should focus more on commercial development.

To ballast this dilemma, the city has hired the Economic Development Director to make this manner of choice and also been very proactive in encouraging development by rezoning efforts. While the city is still moving towards achievement of the third goal, it is making some progress and the plan is a key part of that.

Plans are terrific guidelines and should be used in both urban and rural areas alike. The planning community, as well as developers and economists, need to recognize this. It’s clear that Marshall is an effective example of what planning can be under the right conditions, however there are likely a great deal of other communities that would also serve as a good index for this sort of study. For those rural communities that are not yet using a plan, perhaps Marshall can serve as a good resource to demonstrate the effectiveness of rural planning.

Plans are ultimately guidelines however and certain problems call for flexibility within a plan. It’s also important for the plan to encourage growth within the market and not stifle it in any way because economic development is possibly the most difficult operation a city undertakes and the goals received from it are often incremental in nature.

Having a plan has helped Marshall define, measure, and largely achieve its goals, but there have been several deviations from it when market changes occur or new data comes out to prove that a component of the plan is obsolete. Is it important to improve on the existing plan by making amendments and additions to it, there is also a time when it is necessary to discard provisions of the plan or amend them as Marshall did in 2004.

I can write on a large number of subjects. I have a B.A. in Public Administration and Political Science. My specialties are in law, public policy, real estate, insurance, and local government. All articles are available for publication in scholarly journals. Each is available in Chicago style, with footnotes and front matter.

You can reach me at if you are interested in these or would like me to write for your blog, site, etc. I’m comfortable with deadlines and AP style.

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