It’s hard to stumble upon Douglas, Neb., by accident.
But even if someone turns off State Highway 2 halfway between Lincoln and the Missouri River and drives 15 minutes past the cornfields until he gets to the town, Douglas isn’t likely to leave much of an impression.
No restaurants, no stoplights, 173 people. There aren't any stores left, and the post office on the corner of Main Street and 2nd was slated to close until the government stepped in this spring.
Perhaps most telling of all, the school building in the center of Douglas hasn’t seen a student in years.
As modern economics continue to encroach on the family farm and as jobs move to cities, people – especially young people – are fleeing rural America. The problem isn’t new and isn’t unique to this corner of southeast Nebraska. But after years of false starts and failed efforts to reverse depopulation, University of Nebraska researchers believe they’re building an infrastructure that will help revitalize rural parts of their state that, in many cases, have been shedding residents for half a century or more.
The project makes sense in both the abstract and the concrete. As a land-grant university, the university’s flagship campus in Lincoln is charged with working in rural communities and training the state’s agricultural workers. Speaking more practically, fewer and fewer students are graduating from Nebraska high schools each year, making it harder for college recruiters to fill their entering classes with in-state students. State appropriations to the university are also lagging.
A booming rural Nebraska, the theory goes, could bring a replenished tax base and more in-state applicants.
While the state as a whole continues to see modest population growth, that’s due almost exclusively to development in Omaha and Lincoln, the two largest cities. Places such as Douglas, never huge but once relevant, have been in atrophy for decades.
With an eye toward drawing new businesses to the state’s depopulating areas, Nebraska’s university system is launching the Rural Futures Institute this fall. The system's five campuses have dabbled in rural redevelopment in the recent past, but administrators were disappointed in those results and are aiming for a more lasting, substantive effort this time.
A planning conference held this month in Lincoln drew almost 500 people – 250 more than organizers expected. The specifics of how the institute will function haven’t been finalized, but the institute will launch in the fall with $1.5 million in annual university funding. Administrators hope to greatly increase those funds through grants and donations. Among the ideas being tossed around are efforts to connect faculty members with rural communities, small business development projects and partnerships with government agencies or universities in neighboring states.
Some of Nebraska’s ideas have caught on at other land grants, where extension offices have long provided outreach to rural communities but where those projects often focus more on the mechanics of farming than the changing realities of rural America.
Kansas State University researchers study rural grocery stores and highlight small communities that have saved their grocers. Access to fresh food is considered a key factor in staving off out-migration. Iowa State University extension officers help towns design their Main Streets and engage prospective business owners, including recent immigrants from Latin America.
While recognizing that demographic shifts can be challenging for communities, Iowa State’s Tim Borich said they can also provide new opportunities. For example, an aging rural population is often considered a negative. But if a town embraced that and sought to build medical facilities and retirement homes, Borich believes it could become a sort of Sun City, Ariz., on the prairie.
“Sometimes you can take a trend and build off of that in helping develop the local economy,” said Borich, an associate professor of design and an extension program director. “There’s still real opportunity out here.”
Chuck Hassebrook, a University of Nebraska regent and executive director of the independent Center for Rural Affairs, also sees value in moving beyond farming assistance as universities work to engage small communities.
While past rural growth has come largely from agriculture, modern farming practices require fewer people to produce crops. Hassebrook sees rural growth potential in fields such as online businesses and ecotourism, and cites one successful operation in northern Nebraska in which deep-pocketed coastal tourists pay to watch prairie chicken mating  rituals.
“Those are the kinds of things that can create new opportunities in rural America that take new expertise,” he said. “Land-grant colleges have ignored this for too long to their own peril.”
Nebraska’s university system launched a similar project a decade ago designed to curb rural depopulation and assist struggling communities. Ronnie Green, vice president of agriculture for the university system and a vice chancellor at the Lincoln campus, said that project had the right goals but little effect.
There was simply too much to accomplish and not enough resources to reach those goals, Green said. He thinks the university is positioned to learn from those mistakes this time around.
“This has to be very different and thought about very differently to not be amongst the roadkill of rural development, of which there is a lot historically,” Green said.
Success, of course, will take years and decades to fully measure. But if all goes well, Green believes the project could impact other depopulating areas of central North America and perhaps beyond.
“We need to engage on a much more comprehensive level if we hope to make a difference,” Green said. “Success would look like, through employing this approach, that 50 years from now that the rural landscape of the Great Plains would be a sustainable one.”