It’s been said that we’re living in the age of empowerment, and at Dakota Resources, that’s never been more true. And while empowering South Dakota rural communities isn’t necessarily a new movement for us, it remains a chief focus of our Community Coaches and the constituents whom they serve.
“The goal of the Empower Process for Dakota Resources is to work side-by-side with communities to teach and offer how-tos along the way so that when we leave a community, they can continue to move forward,” said Connector and Community Coach Kristi Wagner. “For us, it’s not about coming into a community and telling them what needs to be done; instead, residents have to discover it and own it for themselves. They have to ask the right questions and say it out loud.”
Dakota Resources coaches Jamie Horter and Kristi Wagner stand by as community leader Kelsea Kenzy Sutton addresses the group at the Gregory County Community Gathering in February 2020.
One such community, Gregory County – namely the cities of Gregory, Burke, Bonesteel and Fairfax – embarked upon their own Empower Process early in 2019. Despite weathering (literally) a tornado that struck Burke, South Dakota, in August 2019, and then enduring a global pandemic that momentarily sidelined their work, the fruits of Gregory County’s Empower Process are still sweet.
“Dakota Resources provides data, access to resources, and access to professionals; they’re really thought leaders in South Dakota rural economic development,” said Kelsea Kenzy Sutton, who works as an attorney for First Fidelity Bank in her hometown of Burke, South Dakota. “A few of us knew how cool Dakota Resources was, but to have community members feel that and watch the process snowball from there was valuable.”
Facilitating Community-Wide Conversations and Identifying Priorities
The most crucial phase of the Empower Process occurs as soon as Community Coaches have boots on the ground in the communities they’re serving. Together with community leaders in each of the major towns, Kristi Wagner, a Community Coach who worked with Gregory County through the Empower Process, simply began by pulling up a chair at the local coffee shop and asking questions about the quality of life in the community.
“Throughout our time in Gregory County, we worked to empower each community to grow residents’ involvement or engagement in what we were doing,” Wagner said.
From there, Wagner, Jamie Horter, another Dakota Resources Community Coach, and Gregory County community leaders, began to prepare for a county-wide community gathering, which was held in February 2020 in Bonesteel, to learn what aspects of the quality of life in Gregory County needed to be addressed. The key? Hearing directly from those living, working, and playing in Gregory County, and facilitating conversations amongst the communities to draw attention to the community priorities that rose to the top. Approximately 60 people attended the gathering to lend their voices to the discussion, and for Gregory County, the need for quality and diversified housing options in each major community was identified as a shared priority.
Gregory County residents contribute to the vision of what their community could look like at the Community Gathering in February 2020.
Prior to engaging with Dakota Resources, Gregory County completed a housing study in 2017, and the results of this study, combined with the fruits of the listening sessions, all contributed to the call for each community to move forward in conceptualizing housing initiatives.
And while each community addressed this need in unique ways, the Empower Process was a crucial launchpad to gain momentum.
“Housing is a cross-county issue, and we tried to bring together a large cross-section of stakeholders and voices at the community gathering to help shape the housing initiatives that each community brought forward,” Kenzy Sutton said.
Growing Rural Housing in Gregory County
In light of the tornado that damaged property in Burke in 2019, as well as the continued uncertainty surrounding the global pandemic throughout 2020, each community in Gregory County took more of a city-based approach to the Empower Process, and specifically to the Strategic Doing aspect of the project, as they worked to address the identified need for housing.
For instance, in Gregory, the Gregory Business and Industrial Development Group, with the help of Dakota Resources, engaged a commercial contractor out of Brookings, South Dakota, to make plans to build multi-family apartments and townhomes across 66 acres of land in Gregory. The land, what Gregory is calling the Grandview Addition, also allows for industrial and residential development.
“We as a county learned that we’re way more alike than not, and we had the opportunity to approach the housing issue from a different angle and come together with the same goal: to address the shortage and the quality of housing in the county,” said Doug Pochop, President of Rosebud Title Company in Gregory, South Dakota. “Dakota Resources is such a good entity to have in our back pocket to be competitive.”
In Burke, community leaders embarked on the 775 Project, which set its sights on tearing down a dilapidated home in town and building a new-construction home on the empty lot. To accomplish this, the community engaged a local contractor and sought matching funds for the new build from the South Dakota Housing Development Authority (SDHDA). Finally, in order to keep the momentum moving forward, Burke’s 775 Project also aims to develop an ongoing fund dedicated to rehab and redevelop homes that had fallen into disrepair in the community.
“Housing is a community problem that needs community solutions, and we know that we’ve moved the needle by partnering with Dakota Resources,” Kenzy Sutton said. “I’m confident that we’ll look back on this time and be proud and glad that we did this.”
Kelly Wollman poses with the for sale sign on a lot in Bonesteel, SD. Housing was identified as one priority coming out of the Empower Process in Gregory County.
Finally, in Bonesteel, community leaders helped facilitate the advertising and selling of one city lot and two privately owned lots with a goal to make these affordable lots for sale. Two of the three lots sold in just a few months, by June 2021. The lot that remains is a smaller, more narrow lot, and community leaders like Kelly Wollman, the newspaper editor and business owner who lives in Bonesteel, are considering more unique home builds like a governor’s house model for this lot.
“It’s not a new idea to be part of a group in a small town, but seeing everything we could accomplish had everything to do with Dakota Resources being our partner in this,” Wollman said. “I’m a big cheerleader of small communities, and I’m excited that Dakota Resources can help make large things like this happen in a small town. People who have moved away from town are even cheering us on from afar, which is a really cool part of this process.”
Looking Ahead: The Value of the Learning Network
As the Empower Process comes to a close this fall in Gregory County, the work in each of these communities is only beginning, as is Dakota Resources’ ongoing relationship with the communities in Gregory County. Each of these communities will continue working with Dakota Resources by joining the Learning Network, an online and in-person membership program that allows community leaders to connect with peers in other communities, discuss concerns, find inspiration and even brainstorm, all in real time. Gregory County officials unanimously committed funding support to offset each community’s membership, which further demonstrates the momentum that’s continuing to build county-wide.
“The value of the Learning Network comes in the relationships that are formed and the solutions that are shared,” says Community Coach Kristi Wagner.
“Here at Dakota Resources, we look at the Learning Network like doing maintenance in our communities who have gone through the Empower Process,” she said. “We’re always reaching out and checking in, and we want our communities to know: once a Dakota Resources community, always a Dakota Resources community.”
Take Action: Are you interested in learning more about the Empower Process and what a partnership with Dakota Resources can make happen in your community? Reach out to [email protected] for more information.