Editor's note: This is the first article in a 10-part series. Part two will publish Wednesday, May 22.
CALIFORNIA — Chelsea McGill took two days off Thursday and Friday for her wedding anniversary, the first time she’s spent even a single day away from The Grind coffeehouse, a business she opened in June.
As she prepared to depart Wednesday, she was a little nervous. Her parents will be in charge, she said. As much food as possible was prepared in advance.
“I also have cameras so I can check in,” she said. “But I am not going to check in too much.”
In a little less than 11 months, McGill has opened the coffeehouse and purchased the events center business two doors to the south in California, Missouri. The Gathering Place is booked every weekend this month — one of the regular groups is a church — and has hosted casual and formal events ranging from baby showers and birthday parties to weddings, she said. Users can rent the space and bring in their own caterer or they can arrange for her to provide refreshments and all users do is decorate, she said.
“It is an awesome marriage with the coffee shop,” McGill said.
There are other businesses on the east side of South Oak Street that are recent arrivals as well. Winding Road Interiors has been there the longest, with Uptown Bakery and The Ruffled Hem, a women’s boutique, filling out the block. At Chuck’s Barber Shop across the street, Chuck McGinnis is very happy. He’s been in business on the street for 20 years.
“I think it’s great to see new businesses move in across the street and liven the place up,” he said. “The women at the bakery and the coffee shop, they really got this street just a-hoppin’ right now.”
What McGill and her neighboring businesses are doing is the kind of thing needed in many rural communities, said Sara Low, a rural economist with the University of Missouri.
“You don’t have to have a big, innovative company with 200 employees manufacturing something,” she said. “You can be a very successful entrepreneur in rural Missouri by running a café in your hometown. Every town needs a café, it is a place for people to gather, it has a lot of social good, and there’s also economic good.”
Over the past nine months, GateHouse Media in central Missouri has gathered statistics and conducted interviews about every aspect of life in eight regional counties — Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph — and how things have changed over the past 20 to 50 years.
The analysis found that in central Missouri, there is a distinct divide between Boone County, which has added 18,000 people since 2010 and 11,000 jobs since the Great Recession, and its neighbors, which have only added 1,100 people while losing almost 3,400 jobs.
Unemployment in the region is near historic lows, under 4 percent in every county, so many rural residents commute to Columbia, Jefferson City or farther for work. Putting a focus on developing small, local businesses like The Grind and its neighbors will maintain towns as a center of community life, Low said.
“You get a lot of those little things and all of a sudden you have a vibrant Main Street economy where people want to come,” she said. “So then, even if you are a bedroom community, people can make a choice — do I want to go to Columbia to the big box stores to shop on Saturday or am I going to stay local and go to a soccer game and then catch a cup of coffee after that and go meet some friends at the high school play and go get dinner after that.”
The farm economy is the mainstay of rural life in central Missouri, as it is in rural areas throughout the state. The recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture shows how much money that can mean in a good year — yields were at or near records in 2017 — and, by comparison to the last census, taken during a drought in 2012, what it means in a bad year.
Farms in the eight-county region sold $893.5 million worth of crops, livestock and other products in 2017, compared to $662.9 million in 2012. Average net farm income in the eight-county region was $31,541 in 2017, compared to $13,062 in 2012.
Longer term, today there are fewer total farms, and they are more specialized, than 40 years ago. The greatest concentration is in hogs. In 1978, the almost 8,800 farms included 3,300 with hogs. In 2017, only 237 of the region’s 8,193 farms raised hogs. The total swine herd of 379,636, however, was slightly larger than in 1978.
Total farm debt is approaching levels last seen in the 1980s, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue reported to Congress in February. Land values have remained strong, so the dynamic that sunk many small farmers in the 1980s when values plunged is not a danger at present.
Low agrees, in part because there are many fewer farmers but also because farms are managed better than in the past.
“I am more worried about people in rural communities not having enough money to spend, or not having housing, or not having good schools, because the trickle-down effect of that will hollow out rural America,” Low said.
The communities that serve surrounding farms have traditionally been the home of manufacturers such as A.P. Green Refractories, which employed thousands in Mexico beginning in 1910, or Hostess Bakery, which laid off about 100 people when it shut down in Boonville in 2012. Many of those jobs, even ones that survived the initial shock of the Great Recession, have disappeared in the last 10 years.
Cooper County has had one of the worst experiences with manufacturing employment. From a high of 1,069 manufacturing jobs in 2008, only 263 remained in 2017. Laura Wax, executive director of the Boonville Chamber of Commerce, noted in an interview that many of the Hostess employees were hired at Nordyne, which announced plans to close its Boonville plant in 2013 and laid off the last workers in 2015.
“From a morale standpoint, it is kicking somebody when they are already down,” Wax said.
There’s another reason to lament the loss of the bakery, she said.
“If nothing else, Boonville no longer smells beautiful,” she said.
There are 47 school districts in the eight-county area, ranging from the state’s seventh-largest, Columbia, with 17,725 students, to the eighth-smallest, Clarksburg in Moniteau County, with 39.
There are 13 districts in the region with enrollment of 350 or less, a special category in the state education funding formula with protected funding. Those districts are guaranteed to receive the same state funding they received in fiscal 2005-06, when lawmakers revised the existing formula to make it less expensive.
Some of the small districts, like Clarksburg, only have an elementary and middle school and send their students to another district for high school.
At a recent bingo night, Clarksburg principal Nathan Bestgen said the gym was full of alumni and current students and the school had to set up extra tables at the school constructed in 1924.
“It is a proud centerpiece of the community and anything we need as far as help getting things done around here, we never have a problem,” Bestgen said.
While consolidation may make economic sense, the small districts resist it.
“A lot of communities, when they lose their school, they do lose their sense of place,” Low said. “People in rural areas are fiercely independent.”
Maintaining that independence comes at a price. School tax rates in the region have gone up an average of 19 percent since 2000.
City and county governments have also needed tax increases over the past two decades to maintain services and support their infrastructure needs. In 1998, the total sales tax rate in the largest communities of each county ranged from 6.225 in California to 7.475 percent in Boonville. Now the lowest rate is 7.725 percent in Jefferson City and the highest is 8.85 percent in Mexico.
Boonville has the highest sales tax rate before the Isle of Capri Casino, now one of the city’s biggest employers, opened in 2003. The casino is taxed $1 for each person who enters the gambling floor and the city has dedicated the money to infrastructure needs.
“The casinos, here and in other towns, provided the means for each one of those communities to take care of their infrastructure,” Mayor Ned Beach said.
High sales taxes, however, are contributing to income inequality in rural Missouri, Low said.
“Sales tax is, of course, much more regressive than property tax because really, only rich people pay property tax,” she said. “Poor people spend a much higher percentage of their income on goods subject to sales tax.”
The daily struggles of people trying to find good-paying jobs close to home, obtain healthcare for their families and find adequate housing in rural communities are the problems Central Missouri Community Action tries to address.
“We have lots of programs and classes on leadership and community engagement and trying to help people take control of their own plight and try to help people set goals for themselves,” said Darin Preis, executive director.
The departure of manufacturing jobs also can mean the departure of people, he said. Unused housing deteriorates and without new construction, the options for renters becomes more and more limited.
Of the eight-county region studied for these reports, four — Audrain, Boone, Howard and Randolph — have poverty rates at or above the state average. Five of the counties have median household incomes below the state average and only Boone has a per capita income above the state average.
“That’s where the story is, I think,” Preis said. “You have lots of people working part-time jobs that don’t have insurance, or multiple part-time jobs to just scratch together the hours that they need.”
The result is job instability for many people, he said.
“So if your car breaks down, or your kid is sick, or there’s a million different things that make you miss work,” Preis said. “So you lose your job and you become one of those statistics and part of that churn.”
Unemployment throughout the region is less than 4 percent but that masks the difficulty people are having finding full-time work that can support their family, he said.
“It’s really, everybody that wants to work is working, for the most part, but they just aren’t making enough money to meet their basic needs,” Preis said.
One way Central Missouri Community Action is trying to combat poverty is by offering programs that support entrepreneurs. While McGill may have dreamed of operating a specialty coffee shop serving panini sandwiches and salads, and would be at home — and have plenty of competition — in any large city, at first glance it doesn’t seem like the most likely business to succeed in a rural Missouri community like California of about 4,000 people.
McGill built her business plan with the help of the LaunchU program operated by the Women’s Business Center, a service of Central Missouri Community Action.
She received mentoring that helped build the business plan by understanding the financial needs, market factors such as population and how those people act as consumers, such as the success rate for coupons.
Oak Street is a main artery with a lot of traffic through California and it is part of Highway 87, the location of California’s main local tourist destination, Burger’s Smokehouse. The local market is 26,000 people in a 15-mile radius, McGill said.
“It is a huge market,” she said. “And coffee is huge right now. Starbucks has done that.”
On a recent March afternoon, middle school students were sitting at the counter.
“I really feel like coffee is a cool thing,” she said. “When I was in high school, coffee was for old people."
While finding a job that offers health insurance in rural areas is difficult, so can finding healthcare near home. The county health indicators compiled by the Centers for Disease Control rank Boone County as the fourth-healthiest in the state. The same rankings place Randolph County as 84th of 114 counties.
In some of the eight counties, there are more veterinarians than people doctors.
“Access is an issue, definitely, with the number of healthcare providers in rural communities,” said Kathleen Quinn, associate dean of rural health in the University of Missouri School of Medicine.
That lack of access can lead to delayed treatment, she said. So can working jobs that don’t provide paid sick time, she said.
“So they say I’ll get better, and by the time they have to go to the physician they are far sicker and their condition may have become chronic,” she said.
The health needs of rural residents, especially those with lower incomes, go beyond a lack of providers, Preis said.
“The social determinants of health are way more powerful than the healthcare system itself,” he said. “It is just being poor, living in poor quality housing, not being able to eat quality food, not getting good exercise because your neighborhood is dangerous or you don’t have sidewalks in your rural community.”
The issues of rural life are long term. The number of people employed on farms has been falling for more than a century and the departure of manufacturing jobs has been a chronic issue. And the departure of young talent to more lucrative locations is also not new.
Some communities are putting a priority on programs to keep young people in town after school or have them return.
“We have right now more entrepreneurs and more young people that left and went to school and maybe even started a career who have come back to Mexico and invested in our community,” said Dana Keller, executive director of the Mexico Chamber of Commerce.
The Boonville Chamber of Commerce will hold what it calls the Boonslick Exposition, a jobs and career fair, this fall, Wax said.
“One of the things we are going to focus on is bringing down early high school age kids, perhaps as early as junior high school, to get them out with the businesses,” she said.
The idea is to show them that there are professional and trade jobs that can provide a good living, she said.
“Not everybody is going to be a doctor, not everybody is going to be a lawyer,” she said.
And for those who are struggling, the generosity of their community can make a big difference.
Dan Brewer, president of the board at Harvest House in Boonville, said he notices it in his work.
A homeless woman with two children was using her car’s small spare tire and had no money for a replacement tire, Brewer said. He approached the owner of Barnes Auto Salvage in New Franklin.
“And he went back to his rack and pulled out a brand new tire and said, here,” Brewer said. “And I says she’s got other problems with the car. And he says, bring it in, he’ll fix it. I never expected him to do that, but that is the giving you will find in small towns. Will you find that in a big town? I don’t know, but in the small town, yes, the people are very giving.”
Part I: While Boone County booms, neighbors struggle with change
Part I Extra: Westmoreland: A journey together into 'Rural Divide'
Part II: Effects of factory closures continue to linger
Part II Extra: Some cities face uphill battle in tech-driven economy
Part III: Mid-Missouri is ‘leaking’ sales tax revenue
Part IV: Small schools see challenges, rewards
Part IV Extra: Small town, big field of dreams
Part V: Rural areas have limited health care, lower life expectancy
Part VI: Communities struggling to maintain basic infrastructure
Part VI Extra: Rocheport bridge rehab could be 'poison pill'
Part VII: Fewer Mid-Missouri farmers are tending bigger farms
Part VIII: Poverty a 'hidden epidemic' in mid-Missouri
Part IX: Few alternatives to prison exist in Mid-Missouri