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A participant discusses an idea at the Shaping our Future symposium.

Nancy Adams discusses an idea related to energy at the 3rd Annual Symposium on Small Towns.

Envisioning the future of small towns

By Rick Moore

Published on June 15, 2005

In 1900, roughly 80 percent of America's population lived in small towns or rural communities. A century later, with Americans spending more time in metropolitan meeting rooms than out in the fields, that number has fallen to 20 percent.

But the balance could easily change. With baby boomers reaching retirement age, telecommuting becoming more popular, and "quality of life" emerging as a more pressing issue, small towns and rural communities may be staring at a future filled with growth. Envisioning that future was the focus of the Center for Small Towns' "3rd Annual Symposium on Small Towns: Shaping our Future," which was held in Morris last week.

The two-day symposium drew more than 170 participants from a broad cross-section of Minnesota's 368 small cities and towns (population of less than 5,000). The event was sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, and the Minnesota Association of Small Cities.

Center for Small Towns

The Center for Small Towns is a community outreach program housed at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) and serves as a point-of-entry to the resources of the University of Minnesota. Small towns, local units of government, K-12 schools, nonprofit organizations, and other University units are able to utilize the Center's resources as they work on rural issues or make contributions to rural society.

Whereas the previous two symposiums viewed small towns in light of the past and present, the 2005 symposium focused on communities shaping a future that fits for them. The tone was set by the keynote speaker, the Rev. Bliss Browne, an Episcopal priest and the president of Imagine Chicago, a civic project she founded in 1992 that has helped inspire a global movement.

The challenge, Browne said, is for small towns to create "the pull of a more vital future," since "hope attracts investment... and investment leverages hope." She likened the process of envisioning a new future to the conceptualization an artist has when standing in front of a blank canvas. "How do we help communities stand in front of that canvas?" she asked.

Filling the canvas

The symposium featured overarching discussions on family and home life, neighborhood and small-town life, county and regional life, and national and international life, and each of those topics had concurrent sessions focusing on themes such as agriculture, economy, arts and culture, and energy. Participants were encouraged by panelists to share their stories of what has worked in their communities and their ideas of what might work in any community.

In Pelican Rapids, the arts have become a medium of communication for cultural diversity; in Menomonie, Wisconsin, they serve to attract young professionals to town; and in Morris, they've helped tap the creativity of professors and spouses of professors.

In the economy session, facilitator Carol Spearman, a county development consultant, shared the success story of the Village Emporium. What had been a vacant J.C. Penney store in downtown Wadena has been transformed into a 3-story, 20,000-square-foot incubator that has housed anywhere from 30 to 50 small businesses, two of which have moved out to fill empty buildings elsewhere downtown.

Participants shared their thoughts on what areas will hold job opportunities in the future. They included working out of the home (in information based companies), locally grown food, renewable energy, and health care and other services.

Legislators weigh in

The symposium also had a session on rural politics featuring four state legislators: Rep. Torrey Westrom, R, Elbow Lake; Rep. Paul Marquardt, DFL, Dilworth; Sen. Dave Senjem, R, Rochester; and Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL, St. Paul.

"I strongly believe that the future of our state is in our small towns and cities," said Marquardt, who added that our so-called 'Minnesota nice' "has its roots in small towns and cities." He feels that keeping young people in small towns should be a primary goal, and is working on a mentorship program that connects youth with small-town businesses. If you give young people opportunities in their communities, Marquardt said, "they're more likely to come back and be our leaders."

Senjem agreed that there's been a problem in keeping young people in small towns, and feels it's imperative for successful towns to have visionary leaders. In rural areas, "we've got great people, great resources, great everything," he said. "We've got to dare to dream about the greatness of this state."

Westrom, whose district includes Morris (where the new wind turbine provides half of UMM's electricity), is a champion of renewable energy. "Fifteen years ago you couldn't talk about 3- or 4- or 5-cent-per-kilowatt-hour wind because it didn't exist," he said. "I think [generating] renewable energy is a great opportunity for our rural communities, and we need to capture it."

An ongoing generator of ideas

Another feature of this year's symposium was an online "Idea Generator" developed by MPR that jump-started the talk on the future of small towns before the event occurred and that still offers the opportunity to weigh in on the discussion. Anyone interested can go to the Web site (, click on an idea (or suggest one), and offer responses or further suggestions. Here is an example of an exchange on the idea generator:

Idea for economic opportunity: Create local cooperatives Create local cooperatives for various homegrown and/or organic produce and livestock which would be sold for competitive prices to Twin Cities restaurants and supermarkets. --From Jennifer Willey of Brooklyn Center

I love co-ops. You know you are saving jobs and gas when you shop at one. If it is an organic co-op then you know the quality of life for the animals was better and you know that you're protecting your local water supply (lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes) from added nitrogen and phosphorous.... At co-ops the growers listen to what you want because they need you, too! --From Lisa Cary of Duluth

The closest one to us is almost 50 miles away. We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that our community will support one in the future. --From Steve Tripp of Waseca

We are doing this in west central Minnesota. Pride of the Prairie is an organization sponsored by the Land Stewardship. One component of it is a farmers group working collaboratively to market vegetables and meats. Last winter we had a very successful value-added experiment marketing dinner baskets as holiday gifts. A basket included all the ingredients for a four-person meal, including spices. All locally raised. This is just one small example of our cooperative potential. --From Carol Ford of Milan

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