Rural is Trending: Rural Towns Attractive to Workers, usinesses
By: Brenda Wade Schmidt, for Dakota Resources
Several smaller South Dakota towns are proving that economic development isn’t simply a tally of the number of jobs created.
For those hoping to bring new businesses to town or help existing businesses expand, it takes a toolbox that includes available workers, desirable housing, investment dollars, quality of life amenities and leadership. It’s thinking beyond the job count and smokestacks and offering what people are looking for when it comes to lifestyle, say economic development directors from numerous towns with fewer than 5,000 people.
“Traditional economic development doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s a lot about community development and economic development,” said Paula Jensen, vice president of program development with Dakota Resources. “It’s about developing the brand of a thriving rural.”
Dakota Resources is a nonprofit that helps member communities find capital to use for economic development goals. The 30-plus communities in South Dakota who belong also are able to access training, participate in a learning network so they are less isolated and grow their community’s capacity for development.
Quality Community Life
For Kecia Beranek, executive director with On Hand Development Corporation in Miller, one important part of economic development was being able to help others in her community of 1,400 people understand the pieces that need to come together to make growth happen.
“Continuing to tell our story is something we’re really focusing on here,” she said. On Hand represents all communities in Hand County. “It’s really hard to put a number or widget on some of those quality-of-life issues we do.”
Yet, as she waits to see if the county is able to include economic development money in its budget, she knows it is important for others to see the value of what she and others do. Some of her best advocates are people in the communities who appreciate the quality-of-life issues that have been accomplished, including a sidewalk between the school and community center, a partnership that contributed money to work toward building homes and a local youth project.
“Now we have a beautiful art mural on the south side of Polly’s Shoe Store,” she said of the colorful horse painting that includes assets of the town.
The store is a good example of how people support local businesses, too, Beranek said. Polly’s has been open for 65 years in the same spot, under four different owners. The communities of Hand County and even shoppers from as far away as Pierre, Wessington and Highmore stop in Miller to buy clothing, pharmacy goods, farm supplies, groceries, flowers, gifts, coffee or to visit one of two veterinarian clinics in town.
“If you ever drive down Main Street Miller, it’s there because people are supporting it because they know if they don’t, there won’t be a Main Street Miller,” she said.
Economic development work needs investments, in order to be successful. Organizations in the Dakota Resources network have different ways of putting together their budgets, but on average, most get money from their communities, counties, private industry, grants and donors.
In 2019, the most recent numbers that are available from 15 communities surveyed, 43.4 percent of the average $129,557 budget came from the cities they represent. While the economic development organizations also earned their own money for about 28 percent of their budgets, another nearly 13 percent came from their counties. Roughly 5 percent came from private industry and individual donations, while 3.3 percent was available from grant money.
Building From Within
In Sturgis, developers have been able to add 116 new homes and two 16-unit apartment buildings in the last couple of years, bringing growth to the town of 7,000. Developers are also planning to build a senior living facility, plus an additional 100+ single-family homes in the community. “To draw in chain companies, those rooftop counts become important,” said Amanda Anglin, executive director with Sturgis Economic Development Corporation.
Sturgis was able to attract a Dominos pizza delivery business, for example.
Out of all the towns in the state, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brings a world of people to visit for two weeks each year. It’s a one-shot economic development that then returns to normal when the guests are gone. Sturgis is working to develop more permanent businesses to add to its economy.
To do that, it’s not skimping on the quality-of-life issues or other foundations for economic development. Sturgis has 50 miles of trails within five miles of the city limits and is working to connect every neighborhood to that treasure, Anglin said.
Also on the wish list: A franchise family-style restaurant, even though there is a good local family restaurant in the heart of downtown. A recognizable restaurant could bring travelers in off Interstate 90, for example, she said.
But the biggest potential growth for Sturgis is to grow from within, including coming up with new business concepts, Anglin said. “We have a unique community, and we’re trying to empower our local entrepreneurs to grow and possibly add on to their existing business.”
Rural is Trending
One of the biggest investment items that can attract businesses and workers is housing, economic development experts say.
In Freeman, a town of 1,300 people, land west of town is being turned into 19 half-acre and acre lots for homes. Another project –Dakota Plex homes for rent – is underway on land that previously was the site of the elementary school and playground.
Carol Eisenbeis, development and marketing coordinator for the city of Freeman in collaboration with the Freeman Community Development Corporation, sees a strong interest in living rural, after the pandemic showed people they can work from anywhere. But they have to have homes to live in, too.
“We have a lot of people who want to live in Freemen who are snatching up properties as they become available,” she said. In addition, people who already have jobs in Freemen have to commute into town because they can only find housing in another community. “We’re hoping to have more of the people we employ actually live here. We need more workers here and housing is our biggest step.”
In one example of people moving to Freeman, she points to four generations who came to town, because they had local ties. Grandma moved to town off the farm and her daughter retired, moving back to be closer to her family. Granddaughter, representing a third generation moved from a western state, bringing her children to Freeman.
The development plans have come together for Freeman because of groups collaborating at the urging of Mayor Michael Walter, who has provided a breath of new life that the community needed and others who have stepped up to work as a group.
“Nothing can happen without collaborative efforts. That’s the biggest change we’ve seen in the last year here in Freemen. People have come to the table. It’s truly something to celebrate,” Eisenbeis said.
In communities across the state, leadership like Walter is inspiring. Some communities lose out when the people in charge of towns and businesses dig in their heels, resistant to change or don’t understand the importance of all the pillars that make up strong economic development.
Leadership is vital everywhere, said Linda Salmonson, who is on the Estelline Development Corporation board and the retired East River Electric Power Cooperative economic development manager. “You need the mayor and the council to be involved and engaged in order for anything to happen in the community. They can stop you,” she said.
It’s also important to look at the big picture when there is a barrage of good ideas.
“I could walk the Main Street of Estelline right now, and there are so many ideas. There are so many ideas you don’t know where to start. You’ve got to take time to step back and decide what’s important.”
Then it takes a foundation. For example, in the town of 800, they are working on some housing land that would be best developed into housing. The project could be a huge local boost.
“It’s trying to connect the dots on how you build that foundation first,” Salmonson said. That way, “Helping local businesses grow and expand has more bang for the buck.”
Back in Freeman, Main Street is getting a $3.1 million makeover, something that hasn’t been done since 1953. With a variety of businesses, making downtown a place where people want to stop is important, Eisenbeis said.
“Right now, we live in a time where people can live and work and shop anywhere,” she said. That calls for a modern mindset when selling a community. “We have a huge advantage in the Midwest because we can see the sky at all times. Beautiful masterpieces are painted for us daily.”
It’s a South Dakota resource that barely needs a sales pitch.