Bugging Out and Choosing a Retreat Location

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By David Spero

You already know that your retreat should be far from a big city, but what about small towns?  We’ve written before on the subject of being close to a suitable ‘good’ small town (see ‘The Importance of Good Nearby Neighbors and Small Towns‘ and ‘Will Your Nearby Town Thrive, Survive or Fail WTSHTF‘, but we’ve not really considered the issue of actually living in a small town.  Hence this article.

In this first part of the article, we talk about the differences between what we view as ‘good’ towns and those we view as ‘bad’ towns’.  In the second part of the article, we talk about the measuring a town by the robustness of the services it provides.

There are several issues to consider when deciding if you want to live in or close to a small town.  The first issue of course is identifying suitable small towns.  But what makes a town suitable?  In the second of the two articles above we lightly touch on one measure of suitability – whether a town is likely to remain a viable and close to self-supporting entity in a future Level 2 or 3 situation.

That is indeed an important consideration – a town that will collapse when society collapses is nothing more than an instant gang of marauders inconveniently living right next to you; whereas a town that can survive with only moderate impairment is a positive resource that can add to your own chances of surviving.

There are other considerations too.  Two very obvious additional considerations are :

Location and Size

Similar considerations that apply to your choice of a location for your (possibly remote/rural) retreat apply to your choice of a town to live in.

You don’t want the town to be too close to a major city, indeed, if anything, you want a town to be further away from a major city than would be the case for a rural retreat.  This is because towns are like beacons, calling to people.  They are names and places on maps, whereas individual retreat properties are vague amorphous things with nothing to identify themselves on a map (unless it has aerial photography!).  It is conceivable that refugees will think ‘I’ll leave my big city and travel to this small town – I remember driving through it once and it seemed like a friendly nice little place, I’m sure they’ll welcome me and look after me there’.

So, more distance than for a rural retreat and/or some geographical barriers are definitely called for when considering a town’s location.  We discuss this further in our article on Transportation and Roading Implications of a Retreat Location.

You don’t want the town to be bisected by a freeway or in any other way be part of a major throughway that you can expect refugees and marauders to be traveling along.

You want the town’s population to be bigger than very small but smaller than very big.  Let’s try to be a bit more specific.  You want a town to be at least a couple of hundred people in size.  Any smaller than that, and it isn’t so much a ‘town’ as it is a semi-random grouping of people living close to each other.  There are less likely to be existing town services, and less of a feeling of belong to a specific township in the minds of the residents.

In somewhat irrelevant support of that, in Montana cities can’t incorporate unless they have more than 300 residents.  In case you’re wondering how it is you’ve seen some much smaller incorporated towns and cities, that is because they don’t have to automatically disincorporate if their population dwindles below 300 – the smallest incorporated town in Montana has fewer than 100 residents.

So, ideally, you want to set about 200 people as the lower limit for a viable/suitable sized town.  At the other end of the scale, once you start to go over 1,000 residents, the feeling of connectedness starts to weaken.  People become more individually anonymous and therefore also less individually accountable for themselves and for the town as a whole.  In a town of a few hundred residents, pretty much everyone knows everyone else, but once you grow from a few hundred to a few thousand, that is no longer the case.

One important thing about measuring the population of a town – if there are population clusters living in unincorporated county land close to the town, those people may identify themselves as residents of the town and will of course be part of the town’s economic base, even though they don’t live in the town as such.  Similarly, two towns very close to each other tend to coalesce into one larger whole – even if both are small and there’s a mile or two between them, residents will of course happily travel to one or the other for their shopping and other needs.

The Differences between a Town and a Group of People Living Closely Together

Town hall TorringtonHere’s an interesting way of distinguishing a collection of people who just happen to live closely together from a ‘real’ town.  A ‘real’ town is more likely to have some sort of public/community amenity – a park, a statue, a town hall, something like that.  Even if it ‘just’ has a church, it has some type of focal point for the population, and the people have shown themselves to recognize the township as something more than just a semi-random grouping of people who happen to be living in close proximity to each other.

Maybe the town has a 4H chapter, or a Masonic Lodge, or some other sort of social cornerstone as well.  A Chamber of Commerce is another good sign.  For that matter, even a local bar/tavern/restaurant is at least a place where locals can go and do a bit of socializing.

Something else that distinguishes a town from a mere grouping of people living close to each other – a volunteer fire department (or a full-time one), or any other type of community service like that.  Let’s also not forget a public library – ideally in its own building rather than a truck that visits once a week.

Does the town have its own newspaper, or radio station, or even television station?  If it does, that is better than if it doesn’t (although with the small-sized towns we’re most interested in, it is unlikely they’ll have their own radio/tv station; and any newspaper is probably a weekly rather than daily).

You want to find a town where there is a sense of community identity, and ideally community spirit and community pride too.  This helps to subtly make the people in the town feel accountable to each other and their community, and modifies their behavior in a positive way.  It also encourages people to ‘fight’ for their town – not in a literal sense (well, not in normal times, anyway) and encourages them to make some effort to help preserve and protect the town from problems.  Because part of protecting the town is protecting the townsfolk, in these types of town, people are likely to be more helpful to each other, and more willing to help out.

Some people might consider seeing neighborhood watch signs an indication of positive community involvement, but we don’t think they are either as relevant or as common in small towns as they are in large cities, and we’ve seen little clear evidence suggesting that neighborhood watch groups actually signify or do much at all in communities of any size.

Another perspective is that small towns tend to be more crime free to start with, and the criminals are better known – there’s less need for a neighborhood watch group, and if there is, perhaps it denotes as much overly officious nosiness as it does a sense of protective community.

A Suitable Town Should Have Some Viable Industry or Shops or Services

You want a town that has some local industry and commerce and services.  Some towns seem to be nothing more than a clustering of houses with almost no stores or anything else.  Other towns have a surprising amount of retail stores, multiple gas stations, and other service providers.

A town with some commerce is better than one with too much or too little.  You know, for example, that the gas stations will be out of business very quickly if society collapses.  The big box super-store will also disappear when it can no longer get its daily deliveries of goods to sell, leaving a bunch of employees without work.  But a small country store or butcher shop or something like that – hopefully those sorts of places can transition to become intermediaries in the new economy after TSHTF and will continue to provide valuable services to both food providers/sellers and food consumers/buyers.

A post-collapse town will need to be able to adjust to a new economy which will be much more focused on trading with local farmers, and providing services to the town’s residents and nearby rural farmers.  Some types of service based businesses (especially low-tech ones) will be able to continue as before, others might be able to adapt to provide slightly different services that will become more in need.

Quality as Well as Quantity of Residents

We don’t mean to sound elitist when we offer up this section heading, but the clear truth is there’s a world of difference between a prosperous thriving town of 500 people, with well maintained streets and buildings, and high levels of income and education on the one hand, and a moribund decaying town of 500 people, with empty boarded up buildings and those still inhabited in a poor state of repair, and a massively greater than normal level of unemployment with few college graduates, on the other hand.

Which would you rather live in?  Of course, the former.

Sometimes the difference between one town and another is massively obvious the minute you drive into the town.  We can think of one town in MT in particular where the only local resident seemed to be an aggressively prowling policeman in his cruiser, looking for revenue opportunities – understandable, perhaps, because there’s no way a town of not quite 1000 residents can afford their own police department unless the department is charged with generating as much revenue as possible, ideally from non-residents.

You want to be careful if considering a town that is also the county seat.  It will have a disproportionate number of local government employees, all desperate to do something, and not otherwise contributing to the local economy.  When TSHTF, these people will need to redefine their jobs and seek new income sources to keep themselves paid, and will instinctively want to use their government authority to ‘take control’ of the problem and manage any ‘solutions’.

With all due respect to such people, let’s just say there’s an appreciable risk that their ideas of a solution, and their need to levy other people to support themselves, may not coincide with your own ideas.

Political Leanings

We know this is a bad measure to use, but we’d try to get precinct level voting records for the last few elections to see not just how the various congressional districts and counties voted, but also in more detail, how people specifically in the town itself voted.  The problem with county level voting records is that there can often be a difference in voting in different parts of the county, the more detailed you can get your information, the better.  If there were any ballots or initiatives, that will give you a feeling about how the town feels about things, and of course, the Presidential elections are another good bell-weather measure of political feelings.

We’ll let you decide for yourself which views are the views you’d like to be surrounded by!

If time allows, attend a public meeting or two.  Have a look on the notice boards at the library and at other public places and see what sorts of issues (if any) might be gripping the population at present and get a sense for the general feeling of people about these things.

Read back issues of whatever newspapers service the town, so you can get more of an idea about what challenges the town faces and how they confront these challenges.  It is amazing how quickly you can form a reasonably accurate understanding of a town, just by reading through a few back issues of the local newspaper.

Growing, Stable, or Shrinking?

We don’t like extremes.  We don’t like a town that is growing too fast, because such growth is usually the result of people moving to the town from elsewhere, and we’ve no way of knowing if those people will be adding to or detracting from the town’s identity, independence, political perspective, and so on.

A rapidly growing town is a rapidly changing town, and not only do we not like extremes, we also don’t like rapid change and the unknowns it presents.  Rapidly growing towns also often seem to be imbued with a desire to turn their back on their rural roots and to become ‘more civilized’ – an attribute which, to us, is not always a desirable one.

Furthermore, if you buy a lot in a growing town, you might find the density of residents around you increasing, with neighbors subdividing or building additional structures on their lots.

Rapidly growing towns also always seem to be placing pressure on their infrastructure and services, and on their roading and traffic capacities.

On the other hand, a shrinking town is not a nice place to be, either.  There are two sorts of shrinking towns – ones which have been reducing in size steadily for the last decade or two, and then there are the ones that had a single event at some point in the past which massively impacted on the town’s economy.  The closing of a timber mill or a mine; the coming of a freeway that took away all the through traffic, something like that.  A town that was once much bigger, but which shrunk in size 50 or more years ago but now is stable or slowly growing again is much more preferable than a town that is diminishing at present.

There are lots of problems with towns that are shrinking.  The town itself looks dismal and forlorn, with boarded up buildings and empty streets.  Furthermore, the last thing to shrink in any town are the municipal employees, making for top-heavy local government and greater costs together with under-employed people keen to justify their non-essential jobs.

While property prices are often low, they may also continue to go lower, which is not something you’d want.

Our favorite types of towns are ones that are slowly growing, more or less in line with the growth in the county and state and nation as a whole.  Our entire economy is based on an (often unstated) expectation of gradual growth, and if there is slight growth, then that equates to prosperity.  New businesses will occasionally start up, current businesses will see increasing amounts of business, and everyone feels pleased and happy.  They want to protect their prosperity much more than people in a shrinking town, where many people are, either openly or privately, debating as to whether and when they too will leave the town.  There’s much less community identification in the shrinking town.

Judging a Town by its Traffic Management

In our opinion, another measure of a town’s suitability is to look for stop lights.  If a town has stop lights, that either means it has more traffic than you’d be comfortable with, or an overly controlling mentality that seeks to regulate and protect its citizens from each other.  If it just has stop signs (or not even that) you’re in a town that doesn’t have as much traffic, isn’t as self-important, and which trusts its citizens to be sensible and sane.

Some towns are proud of the fact they have no stop lights, whereas we suspect some are proud that they are now big and important enough to have one (or more).  We’d prefer to be in the town that proudly delays getting stop lights as long as possible.

Okay, the presence or lack of stop lights is probably not the most important issue to consider, but it provides another perspective on the social values of the town. – Code Green Prep

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A map showing population changes, 2000 - 2010, across the country by county.

A map showing population changes, 2000 – 2010, across the country by county.

We’ve written regularly about the importance of population density when choosing a retreat location.

But there’s more to population density than just looking at the density of an area at a given instant in time.  Is the population increasing or decreasing?  That may impact on the future population density that you can anticipate to evolve.  And there is a very different dynamic in a region with rapidly growing population than a region which is steadily losing people.  Consider Florida, with new developments, new roads, new shopping, and formerly empty areas now becoming new towns and cities.  And then think about some of the rust-belt states, with decaying infrastructure, empty city centers, boarded up shops, etc.

So, do you even know if the retreat you may be considering is in an area with a growing population, or a retreat in an area with a shrinking population?  And, although the extremes of too rapid growth and too substantial decline are both obviously bad, what about moderate growth and moderate decline – which is better?

First, we should define what is normal, such as it ever is in a nation as varied and diverse as ours.  The country as a whole grew by 9.64% in the ten years between the 2000 census and the 2010 census.  So, in a sense, any area that did not grow by right around 10% is growing at a less than average rate and so is – in relative terms – sort of shrinking.

The 9.64% overall growth in the nation did not occur evenly over all 50 states.  According to the US Census bureau, the south and west each grew by over this amount, while the northeast and midwest grew by less.

The states listed in order of percentage growth are

Rank  State Growth (%) 
1 Nevada 35.1
2 Arizona 24.6
3 Utah 23.8
4 Idaho 21.1
5 Texas 20.6
6 North Carolina 18.5
7 Georgia 18.3
8 Florida 17.6
9 Colorado 16.9
10 South Carolina 15.3
11 Delaware 14.6
12 Washington 14.1
13 Wyoming 14.1
14 Alaska 13.3
15 New Mexico 13.2
16 Virginia 13.0
17 Hawaii 12.3
18 Oregon 12.0
19 Tennessee 11.5
20 California 10.0
21 Montana 9.7
AVG National Average   9.64 
22 Arkansas 9.1
23 Maryland 9.0
24 Oklahoma 8.7
25 South Dakota 7.9
26 Minnesota 7.8
27 Alabama 7.5
28 Kentucky 7.4
29 Missouri 7.0
30 Nebraska 6.7
31 Indiana 6.6
32 New Hampshire 6.5
33 Kansas 6.1
34 Wisconsin 6.0
35 District of Colombia 5.2
36 Connecticut 4.9
37 North Dakota 4.7
38 New Jersey 4.5
39 Mississippi 4.3
40 Maine 4.2
41 Iowa 4.1
42 Pennsylvania 3.4
43 Illinois 3.3
44 Massachusetts 3.1
45 Vermont 2.8
46 West Virginia 2.5
47 New York 2.1
48 Ohio 1.6
49 Louisiana 1.4
50 Rhode Island 0.4
51 Michigan – 0.6

Twenty one states grew by more than the national average, 28 states (plus DC) grew by less, and one state (Michigan) actually shrunk.

How Much Growth is Good?

We would suggest that you don’t want to relocate to an area that is undergoing significantly greater than normal growth.  A region and a state with ‘super-growth’ will see a changing demographic, will have an unpredictable future, will have greater pressure on land prices and availability, and inevitably spreading urban sprawl, congestion, and other challenges.

If we arbitrarily define super-growth as being 10% above the national average, that would make five states undesirable.

We also suggest you don’t want to relocate to a moribund state with little or no growth.  There are seldom good reasons for a state suffering curtailed growth, and it may bring with it a feeling of resentment and greedy entitlement among those people remaining.

If we perhaps choose the bottom five states as being also undesirable (although we could as easily make this four, or six, or any other number) that provides a further point of focus.

So if we’ve eliminated ten states as growing either too fast or too slow, what about the other 40 states?  Are they all equally desirable/neutral from a population growth dynamic?

Clearly, some of these have to be better than others, but we’re also starting to shift from where it is appropriate to consider states as a whole to where it becomes more appropriate to think about counties.  However, and without thinking about the identities of the specific states, if we were to select say a matching ten ‘better’ states to highlight, we’d probably choose the ten ranging down from the average growth rate of 9.64%.  In order, these would be AR MD OK SD MN AL KY MO NE and IN.

To show all this on a map, we have shaded the ‘too fast growing’ states with red, the ‘too slow growing’ states with black, and the ‘slightly less than average’ states in green.

growthstatesc

It is interesting to note that one of the fastest growing states (TX) is right next to one of the slowest growing states (LA).  However, LA is a special case state, due to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, giving perhaps an anomalous result for this ten year period.  We also note that one of the redoubt states (ID) is also the fourth fastest growing state.

More Meaningful Data at the County Level

The state level information is interesting to see, but potentially misleading.  As we said above, we’re now moving to a situation where county by county considerations become more important, and so here’s a wonderful map showing exactly this.

This gives us a very different view.  We would suggest that the ideal color to look for would be the lightest blue color, showing a 0% – 10% population increase.  Beyond that, we would be probably comfortable with the lightest yellow color too (ie up to a 10% decrease) and then our third choice would be the mid color blue (10% – 20% increase).

Other colors could be considered too – remember, that even now we are at county level data, a single county can conceal conflicting trends in different parts, and need to be considered in the context of other counties around it, and also whether the county’s population is large or small, numerically.  For example, in a county with a very small population but a large land area, adding or subtracting just a couple of families could make a large percentage difference.

You can now see, for example, that even the most rapidly growing state (Nevada, with a statewide growth of 35.1%) actually shows most of the state with low growth, some parts with decreases, and almost the entire growth (in terms of actual extra people) occurring in one place only (Clark County – ie the Las Vegas area).

This is a great example of how average data for a larger area obscures major differences when you start to look in more detail.

Summary

The US population grew, nation-wide, by 9.64% over the period 2000 – 2010.  This growth was not evenly distributed over the entire country.  One state actually got smaller (Michigan), while the most rapidly growing state (Nevada) grew by 35%.

But within individual states, there is also a huge range of increases (and decreases) when you track the changes in each separate county.

Our general recommendation is to locate in an area with average to moderately below average growth, ideally between a maximum of perhaps 10% and a minimum of slightly less than 0% growth – a mild decrease, in other words.

But, just as how we saw a huge change when we went from state level data to county level data, even a single county can mix some areas of growth (perhaps a city) with other areas of no growth or population decrease.

As is the case with all data, our search does not end once we get county level statistics.  If anything, it is only just starting when you’ve created a short list of counties to consider in detail. – Code Green Prep