New strategy addresses povertyIt wasn’t that long ago when Diana Olson said she dreaded thinking about the future of the city of Evansville. As recently as last summer, she said, it seemed that after years of economic hardship and stagnant growth, the soul of this small Douglas County town of 569 might be slipping away.
By: Mike Enright, Alexandria Echo Press
It wasn’t that long ago when Diana Olson said she dreaded thinking about the future of the city of Evansville.
As recently as last summer, she said, it seemed that after years of economic hardship and stagnant growth, the soul of this small Douglas County town of 569 might be slipping away.
People just didn’t care.
“This year, for mayor, we didn’t have anybody run,” said Olson, Evansville’s city clerk. “That’s not impressive, and that’s not good.
“I wasn’t pleased with that.”
Evansville’s troubles were symptomatic of many struggling small towns in greater Minnesota, with a slightly higher poverty rate (10 percent) than either the state or the county.
About 50 percent of Evansville residents 16 and older currently work, compared to 66.1 percent in Douglas County and 63.9 percent nationwide.
Lower labor force participation could be due to the fact that at 47.1, Evansville’s median age is more than a decade older than that of the overall country.
With 33.9 percent of its population senior citizens, the city has grown an estimated 0.5 percent – three people – since 1990. Douglas County has grown 25.8 percent in that time.
But, lately, the future is starting to look brighter for Evansville, Olson said.
That’s because this month the city entered the second phase of a four-step community revitalization project aimed at reducing poverty in small rural towns and reservation communities across Minnesota.
Known as Horizons, the 18-month intensive program seeks to help mobilize residents in foundering cities and get them to work together to tackle poverty issues in their towns.
Funded by the Northwest Area Foundation and implemented by the University of Minnesota Extension Center, Horizons gives community members the training and resources to develop their own initiatives to improve their cities, and up to $10,000 after they successfully complete the four-phase program to turn their ideas into action.
Monica Herrera, program director, said Horizons was created five years ago as a program specifically focused on alleviating poverty in rural areas, which often present different problems than the kinds of issues seen in poorer urban areas.
Herrera said it’s much more common for small towns that are struggling economically to be dealing with aging populations, as well as a lack of technology and other business friendly infrastructure, such as adequate financial resources.
“A lot of these communities feel depressed,” she said. “Young people are leaving and not coming back.”
“They see businesses closing,” she said. “They see their way of life threatened.”
To deal with this, Horizons takes a community-wide approach to solving the problem, Herrera said.
So far, it’s working in Evansville, said Olson, the community’s Horizons coordinator.
“Right now, we’ve just got people who are excited about their community [again],” she said. “Which is a huge positive, I think.”
The western Douglas County city was one of 13 rural Minnesota communities accepted into the program last fall, as was the 645-person town of Hoffman.
Always on the lookout for ways to help her town, Muriel Krusemark, Hoffman’s economic development authority coordinator, said she and several other local residents decided to apply for Horizons after hearing about the positive impact it had on nearby New York Mills, a past program participant.
A few months in, it’s already paying dividends, Krusemark said.
“What happens in a small town is you have the same people doing, doing, doing, and they get burned out,” she said.
“I just see the interest from people coming in [to the community] being greater,” due to Horizons, Krusemark said. “So guess what, Hoffman’s not dead.”
New businesses are opening up in town, she said, and the city recently finished a Main Street Galleria with space for 23 local retailers.
Krusemark said the support and training provided by Horizons’ staff has been key to the success of such initiatives.
Herrera said one of the most important characteristics of the program is that staff help people by giving them the tools for them to improve their own community.
“We don’t do the program for them, so when we leave they don’t know what to do,” she said. “We show them how to do it [for themselves].”
Krusemark said Hoffman residents also have plans for a community garden, a computer and communication center and a mentorship program for local youth, as well as other projects.
“If we accomplish half the things we have on our list, it will be a way better community to live in,” she said. “With the people we have on these committees, I can’t believe we won’t accomplish at least half these things.”