Small-town grads will leave, a few will come back

About this time every year, parents all over New Mexico swell with pride as their daughters and sons walk across the graduation stage, and wave goodbye.

The walk is ceremonial; the wave, at least for small towns, is figurative. As the urbanization of America continues, fewer of these young men and women will be staying in or returning to their hometowns, simply because the opportunities they seek aren’t there.

Some of them will choose to carve out a life in their hometown, while many others will move on. Their futures depend in large part on what’s going on in the communities that raised them.

Some of the state’s smaller communities have strong local economies, and you can see it in the stability of their populations. Oil and gas extraction in and around Lovington and Hobbs keeps that area’s economy strong, and some good-paying jobs there are ripe for the picking. Los Alamos, with its lab, enjoys more millionaires per capita than any small city anywhere. And the Ruidoso area, with its racetrack, casino and wilderness areas, has carved out an economic niche that not only offers opportunities to the locals but brings in a lot of Texas money to boot.

Mostly, however, New Mexico’s small cities and towns are struggling to keep the people they have. Overall, New Mexico’s population is growing modestly—by 1.1 percent between 2010 and ’16, according to Census Bureau estimates—but that’s mostly because of the Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe metropolitan areas. Look beyond those sprawling cities and you’ll find population declines all over the state, in villages like Clayton, Fort Sumner and Lordsburg, and in small cities like Las Vegas and Silver City.

For the graduates of schools in those communities, there are and always will be limits to number of the local jobs available. Ranching, drilling, mining and other rural operations offer work, but too often it’s not enough to meet demand, so young people move to the urban centers for employment.

Still, small local economies aren’t dead. Thanks to the internet and interstates, they’re not nearly as isolated as they once were, so living out in the boondocks doesn’t necessarily remove you from the modern world. Plus, there are just as many innovators in the countryside as there are in the cities (proportionately, of course), and that’s made for some pretty creative methods of making a living. Look at the novelty and specialty shops sprinkled around in small downtown districts and you’ll see what I mean.

Farming and ranching may be on the decline in places like Taos County, but its county seat has carved out a niche, and an identity, based on the arts, and skiing. Meanwhile places like Silver City or Edgewood have found themselves to be a tourist attraction for Wild West enthusiasts and outdoors adventurers alike.

The thing is, small town life doesn’t have to dry up and blow away, and in many instances it isn’t. For a lot of people, rural life is considered a blessing rather than a burden. That’s why country music is so popular—country folks relate to it and city folks wish for it. For many, country living is the preferred way of life, even if there are certain inconveniences that go with it.

Mostly, however, it’s the older people who relish rural living. It should be no surprise that so many younger people see their futures elsewhere, either because of the job opportunities or simply because they’re restless for the big city lights.

To them, I say: Go! Spread your wings and fly away. It’s a big and exciting world out there, and you should see as much of it as your heart desires.

Just don’t lose your way back home. Someday, you might come to the realization that your dusty old hometown, the one you left behind, had something after all, something you might want to return to.

If you do, I’ll bet you’ll find someone there who will welcome you with open arms, perhaps with dinner on the table. That’s the way it is in small towns, where sustenance comes naturally and the heart knows its home.

Tom McDonald is editor and founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and owner-manager of Gazette Media Services. He can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.

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