Rural Revival

The struggle is real for small towns in greater Minnesota, but there is ample hope in how they meet their challenges

A road cutting through a pastoral setting.

Many of Minnesota’s city dwellers are only a generation removed from rural communities. But while personal ties to those places remain, the plight of small-town America rarely makes front-page news until there’s a crisis. Back in 1900, two-thirds of Minnesotans lived in rural areas, but by the turn of the 21st century, only a quarter of the population remained outside the state’s urban centers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, rural counties’ populations have continued to decline over the past seven years while urban and suburban areas have grown.

With that population shift come corresponding shake-ups in business, industry, and economic well-being for rural Minnesota. Farm consolidation followed an agricultural crisis in the ’80s while falling metal prices undermined the riches of the Iron Range. In the decades that ensued, big-box retailers such as Target, J.C. Penney, Gander Mountain, and Kmart vacated stores in outstate Minnesota, leaving a familiar small-town landscape of hollowed-out strip malls.

Even in areas that weren’t hit hardest financially, changing times have made it hard for small communities to retain talented young people—who have migrated to cities—and, with them, diversity, opportunity, culture, and access to technology. To top it off, natural calamities (such as blizzards, flooding, and tornadoes) continue to shake rural communities’ literal foundations—a 1997 flood decimated East Grand Forks, and a 1998 St. Peter tornado caused $120 million in property damage. There are challenges in rural America that won’t be solved overnight.

But in the small towns of greater Minnesota, many things are also going right. Innovation can come from within, and here we have seen models of ongoing reinvention.

Some rural communities have implemented financial incentive programs to entice new residents. This includes Osakis ($5,000 to move there in the ’80s), Harmony ($5,000-$12,000 to build on empty lots in 2014), and Stewartville, which managed to attract more than a dozen takers. Minnesota-based AgRevival is teaching existing farms to tap into cheaper energy and maximize profitability. Other organizations focus on outdoor assets to draw tourism and attract families to outstate regions, as the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board did this year by spending almost $5 million on 90-plus miles of bike trails near Biwabik, Cohasset, and Chisholm.

Immigration, as well as in-migration of native Minnesotans aged 30-49 looking for the quiet life, have helped offset young-adult flight. Latino (Worthington and Willmar) and Somali (Willmar and Faribault) populations are also finding footing in rural Minnesota. With more than 200,000 Minnesotans speaking Spanish at home, and more than 70,000 speaking Somali, according to census data, this trend will continue.

We selected five examples of rural towns in Minnesota that are tapping their potential—and they’re not the only ones making strides. What do they all have in common? Hint: It has a lot to do with community, working together, breaking down barriers, and agreeing we have more in common than that which separates us. Amid the challenges in rural America, the American dream persists in greater Minnesota.

People looking at art at Kaddatz Galleries in Fergus Falls, Minnesota
Kaddatz Galleries

photo by john borge

The Arts in Fergus Falls

A long-accepted truth is that small towns suffer a “brain drain” when talented young people leave for greener pastures. Histories of Fergus Falls credit the building of the interstate road system in the late 1950s for providing youth an easier way out than before. After double-digit growth for the first half of the 20th century, population numbers flattened out in 1970, and have remained steadily between 12,000 and 13,500 residents in the decades since then.

But over the past 10 years, local residents have built an infrastructure of arts and culture—by hosting residencies and securing grants. Since 2011, a sum of $320,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts has supported creative placemaking, artist-led outdoor events, and other community arts projects. An additional $1.2 million in funding from private foundations also have laid a pathway for 20- and 30-somethings to return to their rural roots.

“It wasn’t really on my radar at all to move back until about a year ago,” says Klara Beck, executive director of downtown Fergus Falls’ Kaddatz Galleries, a renovated hotel that’s home to rotating exhibitions that mostly feature local artists.

Storefront of Springboard for the arts in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

photo by john borge

Also amid downtown’s charming brick storefronts: a performing-arts venue and a few arts organizations, including the local arm of St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts that opened in 2011, all within the span of a few blocks. You can plunk out a couple of notes on a painted piano on the street, or play spot-the-detail in the chalk-art figures that pop out from unforeseen corners. Fergus Falls has woven art into the fabric of what it is, which Beck sees as a contrast to a sleepier town of years back.

“A friend of mine moved back to the area to create a nonprofit dance group,” Beck says, noting that a lot of women are taking arts leadership roles. “Today, it’s not like it was when I graduated from high school here. It’s been within the last 10 years that the community has really taken off. We’re doing hard work, and we’re not making tons of money, but we all care about this community and making it a better place to live.”

Interdisciplinary artist and Springboard program coordinator Dominic Facio grew up in town, moved away, and has since returned to a more-active, more-welcoming creative scene. “There was one in the past, but I don’t think it was so visible back in the day,” he says. “Now there are so many events and receptions, and a feel that things are more progressive and open to new ideas.”

To say that the arts community is tight-knit in Fergus Falls is an understatement. When I was walking along the main drag with Springboard’s rural program director Michele Anderson last spring, A Center for the Arts executive director Michael Burgraff gave a warm and friendly shout from his second-story window. Anderson is on the board at Kaddatz, and Beck and Facio went to high school together. The scene feels grassroots and inclusive, and like a way to bring vitality to downtown Fergus Falls, where people come regularly for events and grab dinner or drinks after.

A man playing piano.

photo by john borge

“Rural communities across the country are changing, and the arts are a part of what people want to see—it’s a necessity if you’re going to be relevant,” says Fergus Falls mayor Ben Schierer, who co-owns Union Pizza & Brewing Co. downtown with his wife, Tessa. “There have been so many ways communities have been depersonalized: First it was the interstate, then the big box, then the internet. But there’s something timeless about art. It makes people have face-to-face experiences. It gets people talking and connecting. We could all certainly use more of that.”

The scene isn’t uniformly rosy in town—the Target down the road recently closed, which meant about 100 jobs lost, and there’s controversy about what to do with the shuttered mental hospital on the hill outside town. But on balance, Fergus Falls has found a way to foster a new generation of leadership that’s invested in its future success.

“Many of us who grew up in rural places move away, and that’s good,” says Anderson. “We need to get experience in the world, and perspective. But at some point, we also feel the pull back. I moved here at 29, after I got that city stuff out of my system.”

Zack Mahboub and Ken Warner standing in a store aisle in Willmar, Minnesota.
Zack Mahboub and Ken Warner

photo by david ellis

Immigrant Vitality in Willmar

Timber, wildlife, and good land made Willmar attractive to early settlers. It grew through the late 19th century as a railroad stop. By 1930, it had become prosperous enough that its main bank was a target for the “Machine Gun” Kelly Gang.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Willmar saw the beginnings of another tectonic change that continues to this day. This change now defines a key part of the central town’s economic and social success: the arrival and assimilation of immigrant communities.

“A number of Latino migrant workers from Texas started to come up to work in the beet fields,” says Laura Warne, a Willmar native and president of the town’s Home State Bank. “At that time, they might stay from May until September and then migrate back. There were only four Latinos in my yearbook when I graduated in 1983—but after that, some of those workers started to stay year-round.”

Workers began moving their extended families into the community. The local Jennie-O poultry processing plant was a source of steady employment. By the mid-1990s, a number of churches in Willmar were conducting services in Spanish as well as English, and government offices and schools started offering bilingual services, too.

As the community settled, programs funded by state grants helped Latinos buy permanent homes, and the community began to open businesses. Today, the Hispanic and Latino population—about 20 percent of just under 20,000 residents—is an essential part of Willmar.

“In our community, the Latinos have been here long enough that we’re seeing the tail-end of the second and the start of the third generation of residents,” says Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. “Probably the best way to put it is that they’re mainstream. No one even thinks much about it anymore. They used to work mainly at Jennie-O, but now they’re working everywhere.”

“In the last decade, we’re seeing more and more Latino homeowners and business owners, more of the Hispanic population running for public elections and taking ownership in the future of Willmar,” adds Warner.

Now there’s a new group of immigrants powering the engine that drives this rural community: Somali residents, who began arriving around 2011 and have faced considerable barriers in terms of language and culture. They are still in the early stages of full integration into the community—roughly where the Latino community was in the early 1980s.

Abdirizak “Zack” Mahboub is a leader in Willmar’s Somali business community. A few years after he founded a successful interpreting business in town, Mahboub negotiated the purchase of an empty downtown building that had once been home to a furniture shop. With the support of local banks and development organizations, he has overseen its renovation into the Midtown Plaza Mall, today home to almost 10 Somali businesses, including a grocery store and a tailor.

“Building wealth is not easy,” Mahboub says. “But we’ve been working on this project for some time, looking for ways to have a leverage center for the immigrant community to bring their entrepreneurship and to build their dreams. It’s all kind of coming together now.”

Today in Willmar, there are about 60 businesses established by its two primary immigrant communities. While tapping immigrant creativity and entrepreneurship, the town is also broadening its vision of what it can be. New Somali language classes at a local community center have attracted large numbers of senior citizens who want to know their neighbors better.

“The dream of America is always the same,” Mahboub says. “From people fleeing war and famine and persecution in the 18th and 19th centuries, and now people from Africa and Asia and other parts of the world—we all share the dream.”

Two firefighters walk through rubble of a demolished building.
Downtown Madelia Feb. 2016

photo by pat christman/mankato free press

Rebuilding Madelia

In February of 2016, an explosion and fire in the middle of the night destroyed seven buildings housing small businesses, eateries, and offices on Main Street in downtown Madelia. The south-central city of a few thousand, once home to Nobel Prize-winning writer Knut Hamsun, suffered a setback so severe it left some wondering if it would be possible to rebuild.

“It was right in the heart of their city,” says Mankato Free Press reporter Tim Krohn, who was part of a team that covered the disaster. “A good part of a city block, and where a lot of key businesses were located.”

The town proved remarkably resilient. Residents started a “Madelia Strong” movement, and the following year, the governor and state legislature approved $1.7 million in aid that contributed to new buildings for the businesses displaced by the fire. A revamped Main Street now features buildings that opened a year after the blaze.

Downtown Madelia in the summer of 2018.
Downtown Madelia summer 2018

photo by TJ Turner

“Our business owners had one goal in mind, which was to rebuild,” says American Family Insurance agent Brian McCabe, whose Madelia office was displaced for an entire year. “Today, it still feels like our businesses aren’t in competition—we’re collaborating. And it’s great.”

The town is hopping on weekend nights, with the La Plaza Fiesta restaurant reopened and the new Lost Sanity Brewing taproom that was added in March.

“It really struck me. You see something like this happening, such a devastating fire, but they came back online really quickly,” adds Krohn. “A lot of the businesses stepped up toward the same goal. I can’t really remember seeing anything like that before.”

An aerial view of Iracore International in Hibbing, Minnesota.
Iracore International

photo by iracore international

Connecting and Powering the Iron Range

Hibbing High School was built in 1920 at a cost of more than $50 million in today’s dollars. This was at the height of the Iron Range’s mining wealth; the school featured cut-glass chandeliers imported from Belgium and a lavish theater modeled after a show house in New York.

The school is still a sight, but the Range’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed—mostly on a downward trajectory in recent decades, as mining jobs have dropped from a peak of about 15,000 in 1979 to an estimated 4,500 a few years ago.

Many mines are now closed (although a controversial copper-nickel mining industry is in the planning stages), victims to market forces and economic history. It’s too early to tell how protectionist trade policies coming from the White House might affect the steel industry and the Range’s fortunes. Either way, harsh winters and rugged (also, gorgeous) terrain have bred a hard-working, can-do population that is essential to the region’s reinvention.

Going forward, the Iron Range could well embrace updates in line with the region’s history of heavy industry. Hibbing-based Iracore International engineers and produces mining, construction, and agriculture equipment. The company recently received a $211,000 expansion grant via an old-school mode of revival: the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), a state agency founded in 1941 that invests in business, education, and workforce initiatives, with a budget over the last decade between $60 million and $80 million. (Admittedly, it came under criticism in 2016 from the Minnesota Legislative Auditor for lacking sufficient financial oversight and evaluation.) With this grant, Iracore has shifted operations to be able to manufacture 60-foot wear-resistant pipes for use in oil sands extraction in Alberta.

“This is going to help us sustain our employment levels [of about 50] by ensuring we keep market share,” says Jeremy Smolich, Iracore’s vice president of manufacturing. “And at times when there are significant piping projects, it will allow us to continue to compete—and to increase our employment when we earn that pipe job.”

Like many rural communities across greater Minnesota, a brighter future in the Iron Range is tied to entrepreneurial growth afforded by broadband internet access—which varies based upon infrastructure, population, and investment.

“In the countryside around Ely and Hibbing, the broadband service pretty much disappears,” says Bill Coleman of St. Paul-based firm Community Technology Advisors (CTA). “That’s a challenge. Living there can be pretty attractive—if there’s connectivity. There’s a strong correlation in areas that are connected attracting younger workers and families.”

CTA runs feasibility studies to assess options for broadband access by area. Public versus private investment varies, and generally speaking, the fewer homes per mile, the greater the likelihood that public money will be necessary.

“Every community is different,” Coleman says, pointing out that while communities on the western end of the Iron Range have excellent connectivity, and east Lake and Cook counties offer further success stories, other communities have broadband access but see spotty services and rising prices. One encouraging sign is Ten Below Coworking space in Ely, which offers the town’s first fiberoptic broadband connection funded by a $15,000 Blandin Foundation grant.

In another hopeful example of on-the-ground industrial expansion, a loan from IRRRB about a decade ago enabled Bovey-based metal-stamping and machining company Zakobe to move out of a three-stall garage. Just this year, the family-owned business acquired a fishing-tackle enterprise.

“We’ve gone from about 1,700 to 6,500 square feet,” says co-owner Wade Karnes. “That gave us a lot more room to run, and then buy a second business. And we still have a little bit of room to grow yet.”

A classroom at Red Wing Ignite.
Red Wing Ignite

photo by neela mollgaard

Investing in Technology in Red Wing

Red Wing, a southern town of about 16,500 has become known over the past century-plus as a business center for mills, factories, a once-bustling port, and, more recently, the shoes that bear the community’s name. And today, it’s showing the way for communities in rural Minnesota that aspire to be tech hubs.

Hiawatha Broadband Communications provides Red Wing with one of the state’s best broadband networks, which led to the 2013 creation of Red Wing Ignite. The business accelerator hosts events to connect tech entrepreneurs with advisors and investors and has launched education initiatives that foster science and technology talent in young people.

“The key to innovation in greater Minnesota is collaboration,” says Ignite executive director Neela Mollgaard. “We can’t work in silos. We need to work together across organizational and city boundaries, and put the entrepreneur and business first.”

Red Wing was recently the only rural town to join the national US Ignite’s innovation-focused national network of about 20 Smart Gigabit Communities, alongside San Francisco, Austin, and the entire state of Utah. “This is so farmers in Goodhue County can use precision agriculture technology to improve their crop yields,” Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote in a message of congratulations to Red Wing Ignite. “Business owners will have the best technology to compete not just in the state but across the globe.”

Susan Langer secured startup funds and investors through Red Wing Ignite to launch Live.Give.Save. at the end of June. The phone app adds small sums of money from digital purchases to retirement and charitable giving accounts, a system inspired by microfinance models in Africa.

Designing the app for everyone from student loan-burdened millennials up to retirement-challenged boomers, Langer envisions augmenting it with virtual reality so that users can literally visualize new financial paths. She credits Ignite’s network for making her vision possible—and believes Red Wing could be a national player in technology and entrepreneurship, in part because of its small-town livability.

“We’re so close to the Twin Cities, and we have beautiful outdoors and the arts,” Langer says. “Today, you can barely live in Silicon Valley—it’s so expensive. Once these millennials marry and have kids, many of them want to go back to their roots and their families.”

Mollgaard’s vision with Red Wing Ignite sees the state’s rural communities as peers of the big cities in tomorrow’s economy. And this small town is on its way. At the end of last year, local financiers assembled a group called Golden Triangle to fund less-traditional tech startups.

“I don’t want all of greater Minnesota to be a suburb of Minneapolis as the world progresses,” Mollgaard says, adding that she places hope in new technologies. “We need greater Minnesota to produce the next generation of healthcare, public safety, education, and clean energy—in vibrant communities that are best in class.

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.