GAINESBORO, Tenn. — Armed with nothing more than his cowboy boots and a pack of skittles, Randy Heady walks around the center of his hometown, which is tucked away in a tiny corner of Tennessee.
Born in Gainesboro, Tennessee, the 58-year-old has never lived anyplace else. He now proudly calls himself the Mayor of Jackson County.
It encompasses about 320 square miles of rural America and is home to just under 11,000 people.
"Our population declined for 20 years," he said. "Year after year, it would be less and less."
After decades of decline, Jackson County, Tennessee is growing. Revenue from sales and occupancy taxes doubled in the last year. For the first time in decades, the county’s population is no longer decreasing.
"You have a lot of new people that have moved in," Heady said. "We have as many new people as we have locals."
Heady argues the pandemic is one the best things to have happened to the country’s rural communities.
Remote workers are being lured in by a concerted effort to increase the speed of rural internet coverage. Sky-high home prices and inflation are also driving more Americans to similar areas.
They offer a slower way of life and are more affordable.
"Since the pandemic started, people wanted to get out of that tight-knit place and be in that open-air space," Heady said.
An estimated 60 million people call rural cities and towns home, helping to pump billions of dollars into the national economy.
Steven Deller, who studies rural economies at the University of Wisconsin, says many smaller cities and towns have moved away from the traditional methods of marketing to outsiders.
"Rather than focus on promoting businesses they’re looking at making their communities a better place to live, to attract people," he said.
In Gainesboro, a small corner of rural America that was once considered down and out, is slowly fighting its way back.