Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias You've read about Jim Satterlee before in this column.

The retired South Dakota State University sociology professor hasn't let the fact that he's no longer on SDSU's payroll stop him from being keenly aware of recent population and societal trends in the state.

For at least two years now, he's been traveling all over the state, talking to all who will listen to him, spreading a message that seems to grow more and more important with the passage of time.

Cooperate or die.

That sums up what he's been telling virtually every South Dakotan. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why he's so adamant about this, either.

South Dakota's population may have grown in the last decade, but as a state legislator noted recently, we're a region that's growing more and more "hollow."

In other words, people are finding more opportunities to settle along the I-29 corridor in the eastern part of the state, and in the Black Hills region in the west.

Communities in between South Dakota's east and west boundaries are struggling.

The population is aging. If we're lucky, some of our young people return to the state after completing their education. But too many of them, seeing opportunities dwindle here, emmigrate to other states where jobs and money are more plentiful.

It would be easy to blame Pierre for the declining state of affairs South Dakota seems to be in. Some may even point the blame at local leaders, accusing them of not doing enough in the areas of economic development to generate new jobs that may stabilize populations in our rural areas.

To paraphrase the comic strip character Pogo, however, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

When Satterlee sees small towns wither and die, he doesn't see the problem lying in the courthouse or the statehouse.

Most towns are killed at the coffee shop or at sports events, he said, where rivalries keep people from seeing the real problem and saving their towns.

The state has lost 48,000 farms since the 1930s, Satterlee said. One-fourth of the state's farms are drawing a majority of their income from jobs off the farm.

The declining population takes its toll on churches, schools, businesses and other aspects of rural life.

"When a farmer buys out his neighbor, he doesn't buy four times as many cars and food and he doesn't send four times as many kids to school," Satterlee said.

It's a problem that is impossible to ignore here in Clay County. The county's population has grown by 351 people in the last 10 years. It now totals 13,537, an increase of 2.7 percent.

But it's not just the state's smaller communities in the "hollow" regions of the state that are losing population. According to the U.S. Census, Vermillion, Huron and Aberdeen have lost people in the last decade.

"We are losing young adults, and they are taking their babies or potential babies with them," he said. "We also need to do a better job of holding the elderly, who are leaving for areas where they can receive health care and other services."

So what are we do? Wring our hands and watch our communities and state wither?

Satterlee believes we can do much better than that. We can start to improve our lot simply by asking each other, "Won't you be my neighbor?"

He has proposed a redefinition of "neighborhoods" with a sharing of services. I first heard Satterlee offer this solution as he addressed newspaper publishers and editors at the South Dakota Newspaper Convention more than two years ago.

He's sticking with his message. At a recent meeting in Yankton, he suggested that, for example, one area, such as a county, could offer schools, another could provide medical care and a third could cover fire and police protection.

Or a doctor could travel among towns over a week or month, he said, noting that many churches already share a minister similar to the old circuit riders.

Not all South Dakotans may agree with Satterlee, but there are signs that they at least are beginning to listen. Cities, counties and schools are finding ways to share staff and resources.

Rural areas also are starting to look more attractive after September's terrorist attacks on the East Coast. Satterlee said there may be a rural renewal with the relocation of industry, new technology and a desire for more security.

The key, however, will be a willingness on South Dakotans' part to accept, and even encourage, change.

"Do we want to have a say in our destiny?" Satterlee asked. "And how do we cross our sacred lines and get together?"

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