Uncovering small towns’ assets


When you have lived in one place long enough, you get to see the life and death of numerous things. I have lived in the same small rural town in Southwest Minnesota now for 28 years. Okay, throw out 4½ years of college, but I considered myself “living in town” during that time too through numerous phone conversations with mom.

During these short 28 years, I’ve witnessed families move to and move from Windom. I’ve seen houses go up for sale, sell, or stay for sale for so long any host of a HGTV show would cringe. I’ve watched young ones grow into high school graduates (not many times, but becoming a scary, frequent reality every year) and then these graduates move on to something bigger, but the town crosses fingers in hopes that someday they will be back.

I’ve developed relationships with my elders, listened to their stories of the good ‘ol days here in Windom, learned a thing or two about life from them, and then had to attend funerals, all while wondering what I would talk about given the opportunity some youngster would actually want to hear about my good ‘ol days someday.

I have also witnessed businesses in my city come and go, but recently, it seems the cycle stops at the going part somehow forgetting the next step should be another one coming.

We can blame it on the recent economic turmoil or that starting a business is such a scary thing it seems nobody wants to do it. But I say there is no time like the present, especially after surviving these difficult economic times.

Richard Florida, an urban theorist and economic developer, has an interesting theory. It may be directed toward urban areas, but rural areas should take notice as well. His book titled The Great Reset describes how society “view[s] prolonged economic downturns, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Long Depression of the late nineteenth century, in terms of the crisis and pain they cause. But history teaches us that these great crises also represent opportunities to remake our economy and society and to generate whole new eras of economic growth and prosperity.”

Now is the time for rural communities to start focusing on our own reset.

Since I can remember our small city has been trying to hit what is viewed as the jackpot of economic development, a factory. Windom is the proud home of two greatly important factories: the Toro Company and a kosher meat packing plant, PM Windom. These factories have not only put us on the map, but provided Windom with essential employment opportunities.

While these factories have proven time and time again to be assets to the community, there is still plenty of room for what makes the city unique and even more appealing to potential families, employees, tourists, and even more probable factories…small businesses. This should be the focus of our great reset.

My small, rural city was at its very finest when our beloved downtown centre square was filled with small businesses. Saturday afternoons were brimming with consumers ready to have a good time spending hard earned cash. A person could find everything he needed from baked goods to home repair to a sharp dress coat for a night out, it could all be found right downtown and with small town service.

Those times are hard to imagine when I see an abundance of empty historic buildings begging for attention. The trends in economic development have passed up those beautiful buildings of distinction and dignity with something a little less charming, but new and put in areas defined as “industrial parks” in hopes the label would attract such commerce like bait. By the way, we are still waiting like a fisherman using cheese.

While I love the idea of all these economic possibilities in my small rural town, the idea I love the most is being able to find almost everything I need with that one of a kind small town service, like the good ‘ol days. I love the idea of attracting tourists with small town charm, history and experience. We need to show our heart and soul again.

Small businesses should be worth something again to economic developers, bankers, the government and this small rural city. For someone with enough gumption to start a small business, well, they deserve all the support and respect we would give a manufacturing company. These businesses create a thriving economy and community as well.

So this is the good news: now is our chance to rethink things and renew ourselves again. Our great reset lies in all the possibilities of small business development within our historic downtown, which was once an active main street (or in our case, an active main square) until its appreciation was so ignorantly set aside. Besides, how long are we going to wait for a manufacturing company to bite again before we change the bait?

Mari Harries lives in Windom and runs the my $.02: Finding Windom blog.