Mike Knutson, keynote speaker at the Feb. 25 annual meeting and banquet of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company (VCDC) describes himself with a brief, simple statement.
Im just a guy who has lived most of his life in rural communities, who has witnessed their decline firsthand, and has decided that maybe its time to do something about that, he told the banquet crowd that gathered in the ballroom of the Muenster University Center on the USD campus.
One of the ways he attempts to bring a positive change to rural America is by sharing information through a blog entitled ReImagine Rural.com.
Its no secret that most rural communities have struggled in recent decades with out migration, poverty, and general decline. We believe this downward slide can be turned around by the people who take time to reimagine and work towards a different future, he said. A movement of change is rolling across the rural landscape as many communities pioneer a new future. Rural communities are coming alive with big ideas and people are connecting to each other and to the world of opportunity.
Knutson grew up on a small farm near Hartford, and after graduating from Dakota Wesleyan University with a history degree, he taught social studies and computer classes for three years in Tripp. After marrying his wife, Jodi, they moved to Beaufort, SC where he helped run a carriage tour business.
They eventually decided to move back to South Dakota, and he was hired as a teacher and coach in Howard where the school was embarking on an ambitious plan to embed place-based education throughout the school.
Howard is a lot like many other small communities in South Dakota, he said. Our population peaked in the 1920s, and our population has been dropping. It has shocked some people. This news was disappointing because we thought we were doing some good things.
We know that our labor force has actually increased 11 percent in the last decade. We know that sales tax figures are generally very good for our community, Knutson said. We know that the poverty rate has declined.
Howard, like other rural South Dakota communities, must face the challenge posed by the changing taking place in agriculture, the main industry for small communities across the state. Farm sizes are growing, but the number of people living on farms continues to decline.
That means fewer businesses on our Main Streets, Knutson said.
He worked to help establish Miner County Community Revitalization (MCCR), and then accepted the job as the economic development/housing coordinator for the organization in Howard.
During that time Miner County has played a key role in the developing of wind energy and organic beef industries and has seen the creation of approximately 200 new jobs.
We tried to reimagine our future with wind energy. In 2001, we became the first municipality to own and operate wind turbines in South Dakota, and we helped two wind energy companies establish themselves in our county, Knutson said.
In March 2005, MCCRs work was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
There are still struggles to overcome, he said. Howards population has a high population of senior citizens as young people migrate out of the community, and often leave South Dakota. The economic downturn experienced nationally the last two year has trimmed about 100 of the jobs Howard gained in the last decade.
Its a story, he admits, that is familiar in small towns across the state.
Howard and Miner County helped overcome the perception that small communities offer limited possibilities, Knutson said, because people decided to take responsibility and work to make needed changes.
In Miner County, we knew something was wrong, but unfortunately, for the most part, we didnt have a dedicated effort to do anything about it, he said. Wed get started, but then all of a sudden, wed lose momentum. And for the most part, that loss of momentum is really being charged by the fact that we didnt think that we, as individuals, could do anything about it.
In the mid-1990s, a business teacher at Howard High School directed his students to begin studying local sales tax figures. It lead to the development of the Miner County Cash Flow Study, Knutson said.
Local residents were asked about the products they regularly bought locally, and items they purchased out of town. The class shared the results of the survey at public meetings in Howard.
The students issued a challenge to the community to spend 10 percent more locally, he said, because they felt that could have a substantial positive economic impact.
The results showed that they were right. The following year, rural sales increased 40 percent. We saw pretty consistent sales tax growth through the years since then, Knutson said.
That wasnt the most important outcome of the study, he said.
All of a sudden, people in Howard began saying yes, we can. We have a responsibility here; we did one thing, and we can do something else. That was a huge paradigm shift, Knutson said.
So, the news that Howards population has declined in recent years may be disappointing, but people in that community are ready to give up.
There is a feeling, a belief, that something else can happen, he said.
Its important that other South Dakota communities make efforts similar to what has been accomplished in Howard in order to survive in the future, Knutson said.
The first step is to hold conversations, he said. You have to meet with people with you dont know. And sometimes, those conversations can become a bit sticky but when people come together, even if they dont always agree, they begin to trust one another just a bit more.
That step alone helps people reimagine how they can change their futures.
I hope that change and reimagining is a part of your future here in Vermillion, Knutson said. Its about building a deep conversation about the future of rural America, and that only happens when people talk with each other.