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‘Fighting for an American countryside’: Making an argument for rural community survival

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By Jennifer Vogel

MPR News 91.3 FM

MONTEVIDEO — Located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Chippewa Rivers in western Minnesota, Montevideo had been slowly losing population for decades.

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A town of 5,000, Montevideo is one of many built along railroad tracks that suffered as farms became larger and more mechanized and as television and cars presented options other than the theater and grocery store downtown. "It was this series of economic driving forces, and cultural ones, that led to the basic idea that cities are better places to live and small towns are a thing of the past," said resident Patrick Moore.

But lately, there is a new vibrancy here — a bustling main street, an influx of Latino residents starting businesses and a focus on art and conversation that drew a young native to return to make a feature film.

Most of these changes are linked in some way to Moore, who was raised in the Twin Cities and came to Montevideo armed with a love of the river and a belief in the transformational power of collaboration. Republican or Democrat, farmer or environmentalist, white or Latino, in Moore’s eyes you never know what people might agree on until they start talking. Exploiting these points of agreement is how you make things happen.

As Moore puts it, "You build the road by walking."

Moore’s road here started with the purchase of an old downtown building, which he renovated and, in 1998, turned into the Java River Café, a community hub designed to "stimulate the rebirth of a new economy based on locally produced quality foods and creative cultural expression." It’s no accident the word "river" is in the name. Moore, who until recently ran an environmental group called Clean Up the River Environment, wants to reorient Montevideo toward the Minnesota, to use the river as a unifying story and rallying feature.

When Montevideo’s neighbor, Granite Falls, planned to knock down an historic riverfront building called the K.K. Berge, Moore helped convince leaders to spend the tear-down money on rehabbing it instead. Now, it houses the Granite Falls area chamber of commerce and an art gallery. Last year it was a starting point for the Meander, an ever-expanding fall arts crawl that stretches along the Minnesota River all the way to Ortonville. He also helped foster two historical plays about the city and area, one of them delivered in May on the banks of the river and viewed by canoe.

"You’ve got to have a lot of tricks up your sleeve to survive," Moore said.

Moore exemplifies what Chicago author Richard Longworth says is the need for communities to become more independent and innovative to secure new futures for themselves. "They’ve got to make an argument for their survival," Longworth said. "It’s like anything else, if you lose your job, you have to go and get a new one."

Small towns face one big challenge, said Charles Marohn, a Brainerd-area engineer, planner and writer. "Why do they exist? For the most part our small towns in this country exist because they once existed. It is inertia that is keeping them around. They always had a reason to be there…whether it was mining, logging, agriculture, there was some core economic reason why they existed. Today that’s largely gone and small towns are, for the most part, a lifestyle choice of the people who want to live there."

Some of those residents are making Longworth’s "argument for their survival" in their own ways. Often the approaches are distinctly local, playing off a community’s assets. And they are driven by people with the vision, energy and commitment to change the courses of the places where they live.

Muriel Krusemark moved back to her hometown of Hoffman, in western Minnesota, seven years ago after retiring from a Twin Cities grocery store management job. But she wasn’t retired for long. Now, as the tiny city’s economic development coordinator, she’s made it her mission to fill every empty building on Main Avenue. So far, she’s ushered in a marketplace, an appliance store, a dog grooming outfit and other businesses.

She also helped raise $6,200 to put a new logo on the water tower. Hardly anybody in town skates by without pitching in, whether by manning the food shelf or opening a store. "It takes lots of people to get things done," Krusemark said. "There’s lots you can do without money."

Bruce Tiffany, a corn and soybean farmer outside Redwood Falls, is working on a way for commodities farming to live alongside improved water quality. He uses a variety of innovative filtering and water catching techniques in his fields and speaks about his efforts publicly, whether to other farmers or environmentalists, enlivening the debate around responsible farming. If you won’t swim in a pool of the runoff from your property, he said, "You can do better."

Windy Roberts, a Spanish instructor at University of Minnesota-Morris who is originally from Venezuela, is the glue that holds together Morris’s white and Latino immigrant communities. In trying to unlock the city’s potential, she has helped launch a bi-lingual social club, a multi-cultural reading club and a Latina support group. She has enlisted an army of U of M students and others in these efforts.

She encourages friendships between people with different backgrounds. "In the past, there were these kinds of immigrants who came to work and then they left," Roberts said. "Now we have these more long term (immigrants) and they are with families and kids and they are becoming part of the school system. We feel this needs to be done to make the rest of the community aware of this good thing that is happening."

Lisa Weiskopf and Simone Senogles dreamed up the new commercial, incubator kitchen inside Harmony Co-op in Bemidji. The facility provides everything local food entrepreneurs need to turn out products for restaurants and grocery stores. But Weiskopf, the co-op’s produce manager, and Senogles, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, also are working with others to improve what local people, including Native Americans, eat and bolster the local food economy.

"This is a rich region in terms of culture and self-sufficiency," said Senogles. "There are a lot of natives, a lot of white folks, and sometimes there is a lot of tension between the groups, so racism pulls us apart. But what brings us together is this history of self-sufficiency around food, whether that be gathering, hunting, fishing or planting."

Patrick Carr, a Rutgers University sociologist who researches rural economic issues and lived for a stretch in Iowa in order to co-write the book, Hollowing out the Middle, said he’s seen a pattern emerge in towns where things are happening. "The places that have been successful seem to have the following: a core group of people who are absolutely committed," he said. "This is a group of people who have had a bunch of small and medium-sized successes. They have become good at doing things."

Next: Where the jobs are.

Editor’s note: This is the third of four excerpts from "Fighting for an American countryside" by MPR News’ Ground Level project. You can download the free eBook, with video, photos and graphics, to your tablet or other reader from iBooks, Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can also view it online at mprnews.org.

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