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What counts as rural? The qualifications are keeping grants from some small towns


What makes a rural place rural? That question turns out to be complicated, especially when determining which small towns and counties are eligible for grants targeted at helping rural America. Jonathan Ahl of St. Louis Public Radio reports that can leave some small communities that strongly identify as rural feeling left out.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Houston, Mo., tucked into the rolling hills of the Ozarks not far from the Arkansas border, is a town of about 2,500 surrounded by farmland. Its claim to fame is being the hometown of famous clown Emmett Kelly and an annual festival named in his memory. Houston struggles with infrastructure, and city administrator Scott Avery was looking for ways to bring high-speed internet to town.

SCOTT AVERY: There's a federal grant that I was looking at with the broadband. There's a ton of federal grants. One of them defines rural as more than 100 miles from a metro area. Well, I'm less than 100 air miles from Springfield, so I don't qualify.

AHL: Springfield is a metro area of about a half a million, and it's an hour and 40 minute drive away on two-lane roads, but only 90 miles as the crow flies. So for that grant, this small town that prides itself on country life wasn't rural enough. About an hour north in Rolla, Mo., it's a different story.

I'm on the pedestrian overpass above Interstate 44 at one of the four exits into Rolla. Right ahead of me is Phelps Health. It's a big hospital with its own cancer center. Off to the left, Missouri S&T - it's a high-tech research institution with 6,000 students. But this town of 20,000 - it's more than 100 miles away from Springfield and St. Louis. So according to that broadband grant, this is rural.

LOU MAGDITS: When I look at the city of Rolla, I don't think it meets the definition - any of the definitions - of rural.

AHL: Lou Magdits is the mayor of Rolla. He spends a lot of time telling people about Rolla's amenities, its airport, numerous manufacturing plants and high tech sector. And while his city didn't apply for that particular broadband grant Houston was shut out of, Magdits doesn't shy away from grants intended to help small towns.

MAGDITS: If a grant come down that was tied to rural, I would probably self-justify it by saying, you know, look; the Rolla and its periphery probably could meet that definition.

AHL: The definition of rural can take into account population, population density, distance from a big city and even the percentage of people that travel into a metro area to work. But there is no standardization, and that frustrates and perplexes some towns and counties. But having all those definitions isn't all bad, according to some rural advocates. Bonnie Prigge heads the Meramec Regional Planning Commission, which works with eight rural counties in Missouri. She says while the multiple definitions can be frustrating, if there was only one, some places would never qualify.

BONNIE PRIGGE: You know, right now, with the different definitions, there might be other grants that we could look at that they could qualify for. And if we had one single definition, then there may not be a grant to address that issue.

AHL: That's cold comfort for Houston, Mo.'s, Scott Avery. While he does sometimes get grants targeted for rural America, he and his staff of two don't have the resources to chase after opportunities, only to find his small town far off the beaten path isn't rural enough.

AVERY: When we're looking at these communities and we're comparing them, one size doesn't fit all is true. But at the same time, why can't we make sure the systems are working everywhere?

AHL: And the issue of defining rural becomes more prominent as metro areas expand and small towns that were once decidedly rural become exurb bedroom communities for people who want to be close to the city but still want a rural lifestyle - at least how they define it. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl in Rolla, Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonathan Ahl
Jonathan Ahl reports from the Rolla Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. His duties also include covering central and southern Missouri for Harvest Public Media. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in November of 2018, Jonathan was the General Manager for Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Illinois. He previously was the News Director at Iowa Public Radio and before that at WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Jonathan has also held reporting positions in central Illinois for public radio stations. Jonathan is originally from the Chicago area. He has a B.A. in Music Theory and Composition from Western Illinois University and an M.A. in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is an avid long distance runner, semi-professional saxophonist and die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.
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