MUSCATINE, Iowa–Growing up in Winona, Minnesota, Ben Winchester went to school in the small town of Morris, Minnesota and fell in love with the isolated prairie town. He loved how easily he could get involved in school and community organizations and took great pride in what the town accomplished. Still, when he heard people talk about Morris and other smaller towns and cities, he heard them say mostly negative things.
Wanting to help small towns and regional cities thrive, Winchester studied statistics in college, and completed his masters degree in rural sociology at the University of Missouri. What he learned surprised him. He discovered that the common problems rural areas complain about, such as losing young people to large cities and struggling to provide affordable housing, happen in most places. He explained: “none of these challenges are distinctly rural. They’re from globalization. They happen in urban communities too–they’re just more apparent in rural communities.”
Digging deeper, Winchester found that while young people frequently move out of their hometown, with 40-80% relocating after high school graduation, many people in their 30s and 40s, by contrast, move out of large urban areas, bringing economic vitality and social diversity to their new homes. Providing quality senior housing and encouraging older residents to sell their single family homes can help ameliorate housing shortages and provide positive solutions for both older residents and younger ones moving to smaller towns.
Invigorated by his research, Winchester began publishing and presenting on his findings. He currently works for the University of Minnesota Extension as a community economics educator and travels the country helping cities and towns use the resources they have to foster growth. He also works with community foundations nationwide to help them encourage regional development.
At a public lecture geared towards foundations, leaders from the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine and the Community Foundation of Louisa County heard him speak and knew his research could help their counties. After working through some scheduling difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they arranged for him to host three virtual meetings this November and December.
Winchester will speak Friday, Nov. 6, Friday, Nov. 20, and Friday, Dec. 4 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine and the Community Foundation of Louisa County will sponsor these events, making them free to anyone who would like to attend. Anyone interested in hearing Winchester’s virtual presentations should register in advance online at benwinchester.rsvpify.com/.