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Preserving community character is impossible

A drive-in theater threatened with closure by digital film Scott Olson/Getty Images

State officials hatched a plan to bring 1,100 jobs to the small town of Nickerson, Nebraska (population 400), and were surprised to find unanimous disapproval from the town council and most of the community.

And this happens a lot:

Nickerson fought against Georgia-based Lincoln Premium Poultry, which wanted to process 1.6 million chickens a week for warehouse chain Costco. It was a similar story in Turlock, California, which turned down a hog-processing plant last fall, and Port Arthur, Texas, where residents last week stopped a meat processing plant. There also were complaints this month about a huge hog processing plant planned in Mason City, Iowa, but the project has moved ahead.

Scott McFetridge, who reported the story for the Associated Press, emphasizes the extent to which opposition is often driven by the idea that new processing facilities will bring in immigrants. He also notes certain peculiarities of the meat-packing industry and of the sort of rural economies in which it makes sense to locate these processing plants.

But I think McFetridge is onto something with much broader applicability that points to a huge general challenge for places that are in economic decline: Most people are small-c conservative and don't really like the idea of their local community changing. The problem is that the whole world is changing all the time, and policies superficially aimed at preventing change typically just channel it in unexpected and sometimes undesired directions.

Immigration is keeping the rural Midwest afloat

McFetridge quotes John Wiegert of the nearby town of Fremont saying that "being a Christian, I don't want Somalis in here." Wiegert explains that "they're of Muslim descent" and he's "worried about the type of people that this is going to attract" if a chicken processing plant comes to town.

Wiegert is not wrong to worry that in practice an influx of jobs would likely mean an influx of immigrants. What you see is that all across the rural Midwest there are counties whose native-born population is shrinking only to be partially or entirely offset by immigrants.

immigrants midwest Pew Charitable Trusts

Younger Americans basically don't want to live in very remote, very rural places that often have unpleasant weather. They tend to leave town for college and then never come back, heading for the booming suburbs of the Sunbelt.

This means small-town stasis simply isn't an option.

Communities will either bleed population and wither away, or else they'll gain population and change their character. Either way, they will come to be unrecognizable over time.

Urban neighborhoods need to change too

A parallel process occurs in a very different kind of American community — urban neighborhoods with large numbers of low-income residents.

Political officials and community leaders in such areas naturally want to improve quality of life — more access to jobs, better transportation infrastructure, less crime, cleaner streets, etc. But research shows that when neighborhood quality improves, community leaders face a choice: either rezone to allow for new construction or else see incumbent residents priced out.

New development is often opposed on the grounds that it will change the character of the neighborhood. But communities that bar new development also change — a static built environment plus increased demand leads to higher rents, gentrification, and population displacement.

Nothing lasts forever

Depending on your tastes and inclinations, particular expressions of desire for community stability can seem outrageous — like a man in rural Nebraska ranting about the evils of Muslim immigrants.

But fundamentally the desire for the communities we inhabit to retain the basic character they had when we first grew to love them is extraordinarily human and pops up in all kinds of communities. The problem is that the underlying structure of the global economy is itself always changing. Demand for certain kinds of goods and certain kinds of job skills comes and goes. Tastes for living in certain kinds of areas rise and fall.

This means communities will inevitably change, one way or another. The decision to block a new plant or a new apartment building won't keep things the same; it only guarantees that change will take a different form. Communities that thrive will ultimately be the ones that accept that some form of change is inevitable, and intelligently pick which one they prefer.