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City of Winger takes flight; residents revitalize town

From left, Mark Finstad, Dawn Skeie Crane and Jamie Austin check out the Depot Cafe. The cafe, along with several other businesses in town, has undergone a major renovation as part of a community makeover JOHN STENNES | FORUM COMMUNICATIONS Co.

WINGER, Minn. -- Renewal is not just an economic buzzword, but a way of life in this town of 220 on U.S. Highway 59 in southeast Polk County.

Since 2008, town officials, the Winger Renewal Authority and locally-owned Ultima Bank Minnesota, have been transforming their community.

To date, four businesses have been renovated, two more are being renovated and the Highway 59 corridor and most of the community have been cleaned up. In addition, the old Winger Public School has been demolished, to make room for affordable housing.

The effort started with a $250,000 matching investment from UBM and the Skeie family, which owns the bank. The community then secured a$178,000 Community Development Block Grant from the federal government asa match.

That enthusiasm for community renewal is spreading.

All along Highway 59 and downtown, business and other property owners who were not part of the initial block grant program are sprucing up their properties.

"You see a real combination of public and private investment," said Mark Finstad, UBM president and chairman of the Winger Renewal Authority.

For its part, UBM has been named the U.S. Small Business Administration's Minnesota Commu- nity/Rural Lender of the Year, an award given to lenders that exhibit ongoing commitment to small business growth in their community.

Winger's revival really began in 2007, when the town and the newly formed Winger Renewal Authority, held a series of public meetings to develop a strategic investment plan. Its goal: "Transform Winger into a modern, rural community with a vibrant business sector, great homes, attractive streets and a dynamic future."

The group identified several priorities for improving Winger's image, including removal or restoration of blighted buildings, bringing in new businesses and jobs, assistance for housing improvement and general community cleanup.

The highest priority was business development.

The WRA set agoal of cleaning up and helping businesses along Highway 59.

"We physically cleaned up the community and, economically, we are building up the community," said Finstad, who lives in rural Winger.

The Skeie family, using private funds, also purchased the historic, but vacant, Soo Line Railroad depot building, and reopened a restaurant that closed about 10 years ago, naming it the Depot Restaurant. They also reopened the adjoining convenience store, called Winger Mercantile, and built an addition for a liquor store, called Agassiz Wine and Spirits.

UBM was founded in 1904 as Farmers State Bank of Winger, but the Skeie family did not get involved until 1976. That was the year Arnie Skeie, a Winger native who had left for the Twin Cities to be a software engineer, returned and bought the bank.

"My father was born and raised in Winger," said Dawn Skeie-Crane, the bank's vice president for marketing and community development. "This really is a labor of love."

The Skeies have grown bank assets from $6.5 million since the purchase to $128 million, according to Finstad.

They also expanded the bank's market.

While Winger remains the charter bank, UBM has locations in Fosston, Plummer, Bemidji and, starting this past week, in East Grand Forks, all towns in northwest Minnesota.

"To take a little bank and turn it into what it is today is quite remarkable," said Skeie-Crane.

Today, Winger is moving onto its second priority -- housing.

The town has plans to develop housing, either singlefamily homes or twin homes, where the old school used to be.

Winger has been seeing its population rebound. From a town of about 400 in the 1940s, it had dwindled to about 165 in 1990. But by 2010, it had grown to 220. Local leaders say that is driving up demand for housing.

"You see all these communities dying. People here don't want it to die," said Jamie Austin,a bank vice president and lead SBA loan officer.

KEVIN BONHAM is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald. The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.