Towns along Minnesota’s western border face big competition from the Dakotas for businesses and workers. Ortonville and Big Stone County’s other communities, however, hope to change that.

By Vicki Oakes, Big Stone County

Over the past ten years, our priority issues have shifted in Big Stone County. We were working diligently in cooperation with regional partners to solve one of the challenges we were facing at the time: access to capital for new and expanding business ventures. But while we have found alternatives to assist with that need, a new set of challenges has arisen: workforce availability, housing availability, aging population and population decline. To combat these challenges, we’ve re-evaluated our strategies and are now making “people recruitment” our top priority.

Population projections from the University of Minnesota Extension for 2010 to 2025 show that Big Stone County is one of only nine counties in the state projected to lose population during that time frame. With Ortonville’s unemployment rate as of early 2018 at 4.7% and Big Stone County as a whole at 4.4%, we clearly would not be able to count on filling in our workforce gaps by doing nothing.

Challenges for border towns

There has a been a long-time awareness of the economic challenges for Minnesota border towns like Ortonville, which sits along the South Dakota border. Like many rural communities, Ortonville and Big Stone County’s other towns grapple with a shortage of rental housing, child care and employment opportunities for spouses. However, the competitiveness with neighboring states for workforce has added another dilemma for our Minnesota employers and those who are contemplating locations for a new business.

A current example of this is Big Stone Therapies. One of our larger employers, Big Stone Therapies is building their expansion just across the border in Big Stone City, South Dakota. They will continue to use their Ortonville facility and they will remain a strong employer for our area. Workforce availability, however, was one of their considerations when selecting where to build their expansion. Potential workers in Big Stone City, Milbank and among those living along the South Dakota shores of Big Stone Lake are for the most part removed from our workforce base in Minnesota because the employees would be required to pay Minnesota income tax even though they live in South Dakota. So, while Minnesota does provide programs to help offset some of the challenges, this border issue and others like it are compounding the scarcity of workforce.

How can we change that? MNbump

Ben Winchester at the University of Minnesota Extension has solid research that identified an age cohort (30 to 49 years old) that are in search of a rural place to live. The research has been named “Brain Gain,” and those who have made the move are identified as “newcomers.” Big Stone County’s Big Stone Area Growth and the Ortonville Economic Development Authority, along with community engagement, have taken the data reported through this Brain Gain research and merged it with a tourism initiative that was guided by the Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and the University of Minnesota Tourism Center to create MNbump. MNbump is both our marketing tool for those looking to move rural and also a community development tool that helps connect our residents, businesses and organizations to build a stronger sense of community for the retention of our workforce, and all people!

Why should people want to move to Big Stone County?

When comparing the factors noted in the results of Ben Winchester’s New Resident Surveys, we find that newcomers searching to move rural are looking for the very things that Big Stone County has to offer. We have an abundance of natural outdoor opportunities such has hunting (ducks, pheasant and deer). Big Stone Lake offers 26 miles of fishing and recreational activities, along with our other smaller lakes throughout our county. The Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge and Auto Tour includes a bike trail that connects back to Ortonville and Big Stone Lake, while Big Stone Lake State Park and the county’s communities host a range of parks with play areas, lake swimming beaches and a swimming pool. Other items listed as important by newcomers that Big Stone County provides are a less congested place to live, a safer place to live, a simpler pace of life, a lower cost of housing and a lower cost of living. We have two excellent school systems in Big Stone County.

Ortonville has also invested greatly (including substantial personal contributions of area residents) to expand our health care facility to include Northside Medical Clinic, Clinton Clinic, Ortonville Hospital, and Home Health Agency. Ortonville has worked diligently to address the needs of our senior residents through the expansion of Fairway View Senior Communities (independent living, assisted living, catered living) and also Fairway View Neighborhoods (a 64-bed skilled care nursing home), both of which were completed in 2017 and built along Ortonville’s 18-hole golf course.

And although we are quite rural, our leaders are dedicated to making sure that our residents have the tools they need to work with and compete with the global business economy, and therefore Big Stone County has great connectivity with fiber-to-the-premises across all rural areas in the County, thanks to the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program and the determination of our local leaders to apply for this program during the first funding cycle.

MNbump marketing uses our tourism assets along with videos and pictures from our community events and general gatherings to bring awareness of our area to those looking to move rural. We use social media to keep up a constant flow of news sharing our daily activities, while we use our website primarily for providing links to employment, housing, businesses, things to do and periodic articles on our events and people. All of these information sources have been identified in the Brain Gain research to be important insights for newcomers deciding where they’d like to move to.

The Brain Gain research shows that newcomers search for groups to join that deal in their specific interests rather than the Rotary-type group with a more general focus—and we have found our residents are the same! So, we are focusing more effort on bringing awareness to our local organizations and groups such a Pheasants Forever, the Snowmobile Club, and various arts groups, rather than trying to plan general community meet-and-greets.

We’re also trying to focus more on promoting the activities these various groups are planning and helping them to organize specialty events. A recent example: Ortonville Area Health Service sponsored a Wellness Challenge in the City of Ortonville in 2018 to encourage residents to lose weight. The organizers came to MNbump for help in planning and promoting. We refocused the plans to be a MNbump Wellness Challenge for all Big Stone County communities. All three of our health care groups participated as major sponsors, and our businesses also had the opportunity to be sponsors by providing and highlighting healthy choices available at their businesses—with all information available on the MNbump Facebook group. Overall, 226 participants in 22 teams represented Big Stone County (and a few neighboring communities). These types of activities bring our residents together through a specific purpose: to have some fun while getting to know each other better through a little friendly competition.

How the state can help us grow: Recommendations

Workforce shortage is not limited to the state of Minnesota or even to rural Minnesota, Big Stone County, or Ortonville. Population projections predict that ongoing trends will have a heavy impact within our county, and we are proactively searching for ways to defy the projections. But while we are working diligently to promote the community life that we have and that newcomers are looking for, we hear language coming from our state government that paints a picture of a dismal, dying community. I know we can take some of the blame for that as we paint real-life needs when we are applying for state assistance (which we have received and are thankful for).

But I also think that we’ve painted that picture for so long to compete for assistance, we ourselves have at times overlooked the vibrancy and accomplishments we already have.

MNbump is about marketing Big Stone County by taking the time to celebrate our communities and the way of life here. So here are some suggestions for helping us tell the rest of the world what a great place Greater Minnesota is to live:

  1. Use language that promotes and lifts up rural Minnesota. There are people looking to move to rural areas, so why paint their dreams of a rural life as a dismal choice? Why not help celebrate their choice by acknowledging it as viable—awesome, even—by changing the way we talk about rural Minnesota?
  2. Expand the state’s tourism site Explore Minnesota to include links to rural initiatives around the state that are showcasing their communities/areas to potential newcomers. This way, Explore Minnesota website viewers can not only see a great place to visit but also great options to call home. Explore Minnesota is a solid resource that is used heavily by those looking to vacation in Greater Minnesota. While people are looking for areas where they would like to vacation, why not offer information on the same website to show them how easy it would be to live in their vacation spot? Include data in a visual way that shows the cost of living, safety, education, and health care for these areas—the items that the “Brain Gain” research has identified as important to those looking to live rural. This could be Explore Minnesota’s Rural Living Connection. This information and data would also provide a great resource in the form of a link-back for those of us with local initiatives like MNbump.
  3. Promote the University of Minnesota as a resource to help more of our rural communities take control of their own narratives, to market their way of life, to reach those who would like to live in this culture and environment. The online tools MNbump uses for marketing are free or very inexpensive, and they are tools that so many within our communities already know how to use. The University of Minnesota, through various departments, has been our greatest resource in organizing our residents and teaching the tools available to our economic development agencies and to our businesses. The University of Minnesota could also look for ways to assist local initiatives to connect with each other to form their own natural regional draw, while still retaining the pride of celebrating their own history and culture.

Connecting for a greater impact while retaining the ability to celebrate individual communities is inspirational to residents. The glow of this pride is an essential piece to this way of marketing.

Vicki Oakes is the Community Development Coordinator for the Ortonville Economic Development Authority.

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