As people move from big cities, Northwest rural communities see economic boost
During the pandemic lots of people relocated from big cities to small, rural places. In Waitsburg, Wash., some say that's boosted the economy.
About 1,200 people live in Waitsburg – a city surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, a half hour from Walla Walla. Markeeta Little Wolf said it has a charm like no other place she’s lived.
“There's chickens everywhere. There's sheep. There’s cows, you know, livestock,” Little Wolf said.
Little Wolf was mayor from 2007 to 2010. For a long time, she said, the idea of new residents coming from big cities did not sound good.
“I wanted to put a moat around Waitsburg with a drawbridge, don’t let them come in. They’re going to ruin the place – that didn't happen,” she said. “The people that have come from Seattle or Los Angeles have come in and they've said, ‘Wow, this is something that we need to preserve.’”
It’s not clear exactly how many people moved to Waitsburg during the pandemic. But business leaders said it’s been enough to spark a lot of new activity on Main Street.
Lane Gwinn publishes the local newspaper, The (Waitsburg) Times. She also owns a coffee shop downtown.
“I had keys to most of the empty buildings. ‘Want to see a building? Want to buy it?’ They’d come to the coffee shop (and say) ‘What a great town.’ (I’d say,) ‘You want to see a building?’ All of a sudden, it just shifted,” Gwinn said.
Part of that shift is American 35, a new pizza place. Owners Tom and Judy Bennett moved from Portland during the pandemic.
“We're finding more sincere and genuine friendships with people here than we ever did living in the city. Because no one's really got the time in the city. There are too many distractions,” Tom Bennett said.
He learned to make wood-fired pizzas while visiting a tiny Italian village – a far cry from his former marketing career. But, it made sense in Waitsburg, the couple said.
“We found our peace out here. It just feels like a place where you can take a deep breath, and it's okay,” Judy Bennett said.
Matt Wagner, chief program officer for Main Street America, a group that pushes for revitalizing downtowns, said as people around the country moved from large cities to small towns in recent years, they brought money with them – and what he calls “an incredible rise of entrepreneurship.”
“We certainly saw some of the greatest growth in the history of the U.S., in terms of the rate and the pace of new business formation,” Wagner said.
And that’s important for rural communities, which have been losing aging populations. That can lead to fewer hospitals, schools and banks in town, he said.
“To have successful small towns that are viable is certainly important from an economic perspective and also in terms of supporting the people that live there,” Wagner said.
Inflation has squeezed businesses across the U.S. But at the same time, Wagner says, rural communities have rallied around their local shops.
In Waitsburg, that includes Gloria Wilson’s woodworking shop, just down the road from the pizza place. She said she plans to open once she finishes renovating the storefront.
Wilson said it feels like the city is coming to life.
“I feel like there's a whole different energy. Change is inevitable, or you don't last,” she said.
Former Mayor Markeeta Little Wolf said she’s seen the city blossom with the arrival of new businesses, only to wither once those businesses shut down or leave. She said she hopes this new wave will last.
“You can walk up and down Main Street, you can look into windows. There's things to see, grab a cup of coffee, have a drink or two or three. And there's things to do,” Little Wolf said.
Little Wolf goes to American 35 every weekend with her husband, Mike Hubbard, a local attorney who grew up here. They come enough that Hubbard even has a pizza named after him – Mr. Hubbard’s Saturday. It’s piles and piles of sliced meatballs and sausage.
“You can put it in perspective because my father has the Snake River bridge named after him. Hubbard Bridge. Yeah, so I just have a pizza,” Hubbard joked.
What’s happening in Waitsburg now, is a “renaissance,” he said. He said he’ll keep supporting the shops on Main Street as the city continues to bounce back.