Article provided from SMIF’s 2022 Impact Report. You can also read the full article here:
Weaving together resources for long-term impact
The town of Spring Grove in Houston County has taken full advantage of SMIF’s grants and programming over the years. Community Economic Development Associates, or CEDA, has been a critical partner in this work. Courtney Bergey Swanson and Rebecca Charles, both CEDA employees, shared how support from SMIF has made a difference in the community vitality and economic growth of the small town.
Rebecca and I work for CEDA which is a nonprofit that helps small towns and rural communities by providing professional community development services. A lot of big cities have whole departments dedicated to economic development and community planning, but a lot of small towns can’t afford even one position. CEDA provides part time staff in a lot of small communities and helps take what the community wants to see happen and make it happen.
We are both contracted to work with Spring Grove and staff their Economic Development Authority (EDA). We’re really lucky because in Spring Grove the EDA is really interested in partnerships, so we also lead other committees in town and have a lot of touch points through our role with the EDA.
Supporting youth with creative problem-solving
In 2017 the Spring Grove Schools received a $10,000 Small Town Grant to empower and direct students to address community challenges through creative projects completed through the school’s Makerspace program.
The Makerspace basically provides a space for students at the Spring Grove High School to work on passion projects. We had thought it would be cool to put some community development issues in front of the kids to see what they would do with it, and they decided to address the need for affordable housing. This sparked partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and an architect named Miranda Moen, who is originally from the area.
Miranda helped the students design and then build a home in town on a vacant lot. Spring Grove is the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota and Miranda’s expertise is in Norwegian design, so the students used that information to design a modern Scandinavian home.
With the money from SMIF we were able to take an idea and put it into action. We were able to pay Miranda and buy supplies and kick off that project. The grant helped build up more of the programming aspect of the Makerspace program. It was a fledgling idea that the school had and this was the first big community program that came out of it.
We partnered with a bunch of different businesses and got them involved in the Habitat project. One of the businesses, a construction business, was really involved. That was my first time meeting the owner and interacting with him. Since then, he’s been a consultant on other housing projects. It really put a lot of things into motion.
There were a lot of other ripple effects from that project. Building that home sparked a lot of partnerships with businesses and others but it also inspired more partnerships between the school and the EDA. We began to work with the school annually and are currently working with them on a visioning project called Spring Grove 2030 which looks at the potential for shared amenities between the school and the community.
This process also inspired zoning changes to be more equitable in Spring Grove by allowing smaller homes to be built in town. It also led to a formal housing study to be done, which then led to the City putting out an RFP for a housing project that we are currently working on.
Creating resources for entrepreneurs
In 2018 the City of Spring Grove received a $5,000 Economic Development Grant to create an entrepreneurial toolkit to equip entrepreneurs with the resources and information they need to address common business challenges.
We had been speaking with so many different people about business plans and others who were planning for retirement. The EDA members knew people who were interested in starting a business in town or wanting to develop a plan for an expansion. They needed to purchase equipment and talk to investors, and they were struggling to achieve that.
We were able to take the SMIF funding and use it for all of the research and the supplies that we needed to create an Entrepreneurial Toolkit which is available on our website digitally and also in print at City Hall. We put together something that was similar to other resources that show how to start a business, but we were able to make it really specific to Spring Grove. The toolkit explains everything from working with the City Administrator and all of the steps to go through with the State, to writing a business plan.
A lot of the time books try to explain facts about what you need to start or expand a business but they don’t explain why it’s important so we gave people an explanation. The toolkit helps entrepreneurs really focus in on what it is that the local EDA or a bank investor would be looking for. I’m in the process right now of reviewing business plans that were created based on that toolkit for our Restaurant Challenge to expand our dining options in town.
We also used the Economic Development Grant to organize some classes in town. We worked with Winona State University to host three different business breakfasts to teach entrepreneurs about financing.
I remember one business had trouble with employee retention and we asked if they did annual reviews and learned they didn’t have a tool for communicating with their employees. They needed an employee evaluation template so we created that for them as part of the toolkit. We found we also needed to include a sample business plan, licensing and succession plans. We now send the toolkit to anyone who approaches the EDA about wanting to start a business.
A long-term approach to economic development
In 2018 Spring Grove became one of SMIF’s Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) communities. The REV model is based on a framework from NetWork Kansas which has a proven track record of accelerating entrepreneurial activity in rural communities. Towns are selected through a competitive process and commit to participating in the program for a three-year period.
The Entrepreneurial Toolkit was created in 2018 which was right after we joined the REV program. We did a lot of surveys for REV and found out what local entrepreneurs needed which helped shape what the toolkit would look like. REV is a program that provides resources and accountability especially for small towns looking to build more of an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
I think for us what the program has done is hold a mirror up to ourselves to better see our strengths and weaknesses. We did a lot of asset mapping and evaluation and goal setting at the beginning. Having accountability to set goals and evaluate progress is something that we often feel too busy to do, so that’s been really helpful.
When we started with the REV program a lot of the things that came up in conversation were things that a Chamber would be doing. For years and years we talked about needing a Chamber of Commerce in town. Eventually, our REV team morphed into a Chamber committee. We now have a board of directors, newly hired staff and are looking for a downtown space for a visitor center and Chamber office.
Two years ago the Chamber started a farmers’ market as a project to give the community something to smile about during the pandemic. They wanted to create a way for businesses to sell their goods outside and to eat and listen to music. This little experiment created an amazing program which is the Music and Market series. Every Wednesday from May to October there is music in the park, the farmers’ market, food, and it’s right next to RockFilter Distillery. It’s like the town square has come alive because of the Chamber’s work to not just create an event but give the community members a place to gather.
Now that REV in Spring Grove is past its three-year initial commitment, the local energy behind REV has morphed into the Chamber which has carried the torch as far as programming and entrepreneurial development. We’re still connected with the programming through SMIF, and now the new REV communities can learn from us and we can continue some of those conversations.
The Chamber’s next goal to create a downtown space is now within reach thanks to SMIF’s most recent support through a $10,000 Small Town Grant. We are working to create a vibrant hub for entrepreneurs and business owners, as well as a welcoming place for visitors. Activated buildings and innovative uses of space are really essential for collaboration, and Spring Grove is very good at that!
REV also spurred the Spring Grove 2030 committee. There was the relationship with the school, but it solidified it more through REV conversations. There were a lot of things identified through REV that weren’t specifically economic development-driven, so there were a lot of amenities that came up in conversation that the community wanted to see and that became part of Spring Grove 2030.
Providing resources for community vitality
In 2021 the Spring Grove EDA received a Paint the Town Grant to enhance three historic Main Street Spaces that house the community’s nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. Additionally, the EDA received a $5,500 Small Town Grant to transform a defunct city alley in the heart of Spring Grove into an inviting public space.
Three different projects were supported through the Paint the Town Grant. We used it to paint the façade of an historic building downtown, we did some interior renovations to the local historical society, Giants of the Earth. We also used the paint to create a new community mural.
The Paint the Town grant gave us the paint for the mural, but the EDA also received a Small Town Grant to revitalize the alley where the mural was painted. This helped pay for the lighting, the artist stipend and the supplies for the mural and little café tables that are now in the alley. We also got local donations and a lot of in-kind support.
We were able to hire a local artist for the mural. She had studied a local elder’s rosemaling work, which is traditional Norwegian design, and created her young modern spin on it. It mirrors the Habitat for Humanity project because we were able to use multiple generations of the Spring Grove experience and create something new.
Giving our community more spaces like the alley project is a lovely way to encourage more shopping, walking, and hanging out downtown. We hope that it inspires further beautification projects around the community.
I’ve heard a lot of comments from others in Spring Grove about the space itself, not just the mural. A lot of people have said that they’re not Norwegian but they appreciate that the space welcomed them. It’s a really welcoming experience saying you may not be Norwegian but at heart you really are. It gave them elements to help them feel welcome.
The space is next to the community theater which sells out every show. They are going to use this space as an outdoor lobby. When the space isn’t in use by the theater the community can use it – they take their lunch there and visit with friends.
Right around the same time that we received those two grants, Giants of the Earth also received a $10,000 Small Town Grant from SMIF for their programming. Giants is a great partner of ours – it’s been such an anchor of the community and the downtown and they’ve invested a lot in the downtown area. They’re really trying to reach beyond the Norwegian heritage and celebrate all heritage and all cultural backgrounds which is something they did with the grant.
And now Giants is doing partnerships with the school which has helped inspire some of the 2030 conversations about what spaces and amenities we need to create organic moments of connection for people. A lot of the work we’ve been doing lately, whether it’s setting up little café tables in the alley, or developing a farmers’ market, or bringing people together for the 2030 conversations, it all goes back to how do we create a community where people feel like they belong, and how do we invest in the community in a way that inspires others to invest as well.
Working with SMIF has changed a lot about public perception on these projects. In some communities when you try to do something good in a public space some people think it’s a waste of tax dollars. Because we have a partner like SMIF, people are more excited and that spurs more creativity and participation. I work in multiple communities on behalf of CEDA and I’ve been able to duplicate what I’ve done here and help it flow out in other communities. SMIF has really taught us about how to get people involved and get people excited.
SMIF really helps us turn ideas into action. Small towns aren’t limited in their creative potential. They have a lot to offer, a lot of talented, creative people. It often just comes down to resources. Receiving even a few thousand dollars from a grant can sometimes be the thing that helps get some legs beneath a project and get it moving. We had been talking about a Chamber for many years but actually having the dedicated staff time and resources to make it happen was huge. We’ve also been talking about ways to revitalize that alley for years but being able to use funding from SMIF to catalyze that project was something we knew would get it going.
Resources are so precious especially when you’re dealing with City funding and tax dollars so it really helps us to create these amenities for the community without sacrificing anything else in the community. Grants and programs like REV help us put some momentum behind projects, which makes a world of difference in a small town with limited capacity.
This story is from SMIF’s 2022 Impact Report. To read the other stories from the report, and to view maps showing the impact of these programs, visit smifoundation.org/impactreport.