When buildings are more than buildings

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When a business closes in a rural community, the following 24 months or so are key. Whether it be a farm, small town grocery or repair shop, if the real estate it occupied is still lacking a day-to-day human presence a year or two down the road, it sends a troubling message about the future not only of that particular enterprise, but the community as a whole. That’s why the mayor of the western Minnesota community of Clinton is so anxious to see her town’s diner full of clattering cups and lively chatter again.

“It is my home,” Shirley Finberg told me emphatically last Friday afternoon, referring to the Big Stone County community of Clinton (pop. 449). She said this while sitting in the booth of the Clinton Kitchen, a narrow space on Main Street wedged between a 24-hour fitness center and a bombed-out pool hall. With the exception of a two-year break a while back, the energetic Finberg has been the mayor of Clinton since 1990. She’s 74, and moved here from nearby Ortonville in 1963. Over the years she’s raised a family, served as the office manager of the local farmers’ co-op, and grappled with ways to keep this town from drying up and blowing away.

One of the main issues on Finberg’s mind these days is how to keep the Clinton Kitchen from becoming a twin of the wrecked, abandoned pool hall next door. The Kitchen, located in the town’s historic Masonic Temple Building, has housed various cafes over the decades. The last restaurant to operate in the space, Joanie’s Kitchen, closed last Dec. 31.

A few years ago, the City of Clinton acquired the Masonic building, as well as the old pool hall next door, and had been renting the restaurant space to the operators of Joanie’s. Being a property owner is not ideal for a small town like Clinton, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep real estate from becoming an abandoned eyesore.

In fact, one of Finberg’s current headaches is figuring out how to come up with enough money to demolish the old pool hall — a peek through its front window makes it clear this building is beyond saving. The ceiling has collapsed and the floors and walls are dilapidated. An outside brick wall facing an open lot next door is in such a shaky state that plans to locate a farmers’ market next to the building were abandoned for safety reasons.

That’s why Finberg is so excited about efforts on the part of a group of committed citizens to inject new life into Clinton Kitchen. In April, the Land Stewardship Project began leasing the old restaurant space and started hosting discussions around how Clinton Kitchen could serve as a hub for sustainable economic development. These discussions have been led by the Big Stone Local Foods Group, which is made up of local farmers, business owners and others who feel the production and consumption of local food could be a cornerstone of a thriving Main Street.

As we’ve mentioned in this blog before, local food systems show a lot of promise for revitalizing rural communities. So LSP and the Big Stone Local Foods Group are looking at using the Clinton Kitchen as a location for doing everything from cooking and processing local food to serving community meals that are healthy and sourced from area farmers.

Rebecca Terk, an LSP organizer working with the Local Foods Group, says that even though Big Stone County has been officially designated a “food desert” by the USDA, in fact a lot of food is produced under the radar in numerous gardens, backyard orchards and even on small livestock operations. Big Stone Lake is the headwaters of the Minnesota River, and the micro-climate produced by this body of water once provided ample protection for numerous apple orchards in the county. In addition, cannery crops like sweet corn and peas were a major presence here years ago.

The problem is, there’s not a good, consistent way of processing, aggregating, transporting and making use of the food being produced on various farms in the region. The large co-op elevator that can be seen through the front window of Clinton Kitchen is a testament to the kind of infrastructure that dominates here — an infrastructure that is very good at transporting raw commodities out of the region, taking local wealth with them.

“In a community like this, just doing one thing isn’t probably going to cut it,” says Terk of efforts to create sustainable economic development in the region. “The trick is to get something that can be sustained.”

And hopefully sustained as a profit-generating business that gets young people interested in making this area their home. Finberg is excited about the possibilities of using the Clinton Kitchen as a hub for local food activities. After all, this is a farming community with rich soil and flat fields, and anything that can help keep agriculture economically viable — even if it’s a departure from the traditional corn-soybean paradigm — is a good idea, as far as she’s concerned.

“I think it would help get more young people to stay,” she says of a system based on a local foods economy. “If we don’t have young farmers in the area, we won’t have much.”

But Finberg is also the first to stand up for the community’s older citizens, which make up a large portion of the population. She makes it clear more than once during our conversation that she and many of the other long-time residents would like to see Clinton Kitchen become a community gathering spot for drinking coffee, munching pastries and trading news. There’s a convenience store/coffee shop out on the highway at the edge of town, but Finberg says it’s not the same.

“We need a gathering place,” she says.

A gathering place is no small thing at a time when people even in small towns feel increasingly isolated from their neighbors. And isolation makes it more difficult to brainstorm ideas for creating a brighter future. Finberg feels confident that, given a chance, area residents can brew up some innovative ways for revitalizing Main Street and environs. Just up the street from Clinton Kitchen, an old railroad depot that was slated for demolition was saved when citizens got together and raised funds to remodel it. A recently launched farmers’ market has been a minor hit. And when the 24-hour fitness center opened recently, 200 people bought memberships. Not all of those people are using the gym’s facilities, but many joined just to show their support for a health-based business in the community.

In fact, on the day I’m talking to Finberg, Terk and LSP intern Johanna Rupprecht at the Kitchen, the big news in town is that several hundred dollars was raised the day before during a community celebration. That money is going toward helping upgrade the Clinton Kitchen’s facilities so that it’s in a better position to serve as a place to cook, store and serve local food.

“I like to be involved,” Finberg says as she heads for the bank to deposit the donated money.

Apparently, she’s not the only one.