Healthy relationships are the foundation of rural communities. And the community of Arlington, S.D., has determined relationships must reach outside the town’s own 900 residents to truly be successful.
Building a strong culture around veterans
Arlington’s American Legion Post is a point of pride for the community: At 220 enrolled members, it has the highest membership per capita of any post in the nation.
The secret to large, active enrollment, according to the Legion’s state commander, Arlington’s own Terry Hanson, is reaching out to potential members.
“When my kids were growing up, I was at the basketball games, I was at the wrestling tournaments,” so the Legion needs to be—and is—at those events in Arlington, said Hanson, who speaks at district meetings about the local post’s success.
The post has made engaging the youth of Arlington a priority by providing the color guard for many community events, including home football games.
Post 42 also sends more local representatives to Girls and Boys State than any other post in South Dakota: six or seven, instead of the three suggested by Legion guidelines.
Previously, the official application indicated the top two-thirds of a high school’s junior class were the ones who should be encouraged to apply for the programs, but that thinking has changed—they are considering students who are not doing as well academically also.
“They might be the C and D students, but they are there because they want to learn more about government,” Hanson said. “Those are the people who are actually doing a really, really nice job.”
Currently, the post is looking into developing a Sons of the Legion post, which would allow young men the opportunity to join based upon the service of their family members. This fills a void, according to members of the post, for those men and boys who would like to be involved but can’t be, because they didn’t personally serve.
They would be eligible for the organization “as soon as they can carry a firearm,” according to Jason Uphoff, executive director of the Arlington Community Development Corporation. “Previously, guys couldn’t join until they were older and had served in the military,” unlike females, who can join the Legion Auxiliary as girls, based upon their family members’ service.
“Some people say we don’t need to get all these kids involved, but if we don’t get them involved, (the Legion) isn’t going to keep going,” said Rolly Quam, who serves as the local commander.
“School systems and Legions kind of close down in the same route,” he said.
Shedding light on youth needs
The school’s new senior work-shadow program was an ideal opportunity to reach out to local youth, according to Uphoff.
The bulk of Arlington Community Development Corporation’s work-shadow job description was a high school student’s dream: “come up with a plan to hang out on Friday nights, and then Tweet about it,” he laughed.
His goal was to connect with students and gain their perspective on the community and its future, but the connection is helping the youth reach one of their goals, too. For the past four years, the senior class has yearned to spend some of their free time together.
“Friday nights—or on weekends—we just separate,” ACDC work shadow McKenzie Mix said. “You’re only in high school for four years, so I think you should make the best of it and hang out as much as you can.”
So far this year, Mix and fellow work shadow Mercedes Johnson are building a social media presence for ACDC and are creating a teen socialization plan for when the “Friday night lights” dim at the end of football season.
Uphoff said the school couldn’t have matched ACDC’s needs with any more appropriate talent.
Their “talents are complementary, but they’re not duplicated, and they both have similar but varied perspectives on growing up here,” Uphoff said. “They both have families who are very involved in the community, but in totally different ways.”
Mix is a worker bee who makes things happen, and she described Johnson as “Arlington’s cheerleader.” The arrangement is helping the girls appreciate the community in new ways, too.
“It opens your mind to how a town needs to grow,” Johnson said, and has given her a new appreciation for what the community does offer, rather than focusing on what it doesn’t. “We think there’s no place to eat here. Well, what if we didn’t have the places that we do have?”
Innovating to survive decreased enrollment
The Arlington School District’s current preschool-through-senior enrollment of 263 is a drop of 40 students since the 2013-14 school year. Another 10-student dip is expected next year.
The declining enrollment has required the school to get creative to work with fewer resources.
“We basically have the bare minimum” for classroom teachers, Superintendent Chris Lund said. “We have so few kids that, unless it’s a graduation requirement, they don’t get a chance to take a lot of electives,” unless they are pursued via distance learning or other alternative teaching methods.
Even in the core subjects, the district has had to think differently.
“With our numbers, you can’t really have a full-time job unless you can teach multiple subjects,” Lund said.
Adapting to a diverse position takes time, but those who stick with it seem to appreciate the change of pace, according to Lund.
“When they first start, it’s very difficult to get organized and get going in the right direction and shift gears,” he said.
But, once they leave, they are hard to replace.
“If we can look early enough in the year, it’s not too bad for us,” Lund said, because South Dakota State University and Dakota State University, each within 25 miles of Arlington, both have teaching colleges, but it becomes more difficult to hire for the following year starting around April.
Two years ago, the district could not find a math teacher. An uncertified teacher was hired, but some students, including senior Johanna Jensen, opted to take math classes via distance education. This year, an Arlington native who taught out of state filled the position.
Jensen said the students who took the distance course are “a lot above the kids who stayed in the classroom,” but with the new teacher, those students are realizing “we’re quite behind also, so the kids that are behind us are really behind, but she’s doing a really good job of trying to get us back up to pace.”
One distance course has prepared Jensen, now a senior, to enter directly into the working world upon graduation, if she chooses that path. She has earned a pharmacy technician certification, and already has shadowed at area pharmacies.
There are advantages to attending a small school, even if the some opportunities are limited, Jensen said.
“Being a small school, the teachers have very high standards. It’s not an overall standard—it’s high standards for you as a person, because they know how you can do, or your capabilities,” she said. “They truly believe in our success,” and have more time to home in on each student’s strengths more than they could with larger classes. “They care about each and every one of them. … We’re just kind of a big family. We’re really close, and we go through things together and learn together.”
Another advantage, according to Jensen, is the chance to be involved in a variety of activities. Students who are stars on the Arlington-Lake Preston Badgers football team also can be found marching in the band or competing in oral interpretation.
The most popular nonsport activity is FFA.
A majority of the students either are the children or grandchildren of farmers, but “it’s not Future Farmers of America anymore,” Jensen said. “It’s FFA. It’s for anyone, if you live on a farm, or if you don’t.”
Local FFA members participate in the organization in the typical ways—through speech, interview and ag competitions—but they also give back to their community through cleaning ditches, windows and public spaces, raking leaves or showing sponsoring business their appreciation by delivering treats.
Classes are close-knit, which means less friction than at larger schools, according to Jensen.
“I don’t see a lot of bullying,” Jensen said. “We are all here for each other.”
Supporting youth builds community
For Andrew King, leaving Arlington long-term is not an option.
“This community has done so much for me over my 19 years,” he said. “I feel like I need to give back to them for all the support they’ve given me.”
Active in high school athletics and other activities, King said the community’s interest in his accomplishments has built valuable relationships.
Arlington companies offer virtually all aspects of residential and commercial construction but one: the community’s only plumber retired a few years back. King intends to fill that gap. He currently is one of just 10 plumbing students enrolled at Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, the only school in the state offering the high-need program.
“I want to learn as much as I possibly can in these nine months, so I can come out and whomever I work for, I can contribute,” King said. “I feel like this is probably the best way I can” repay the community for its commitment to him. “When I think the time is right, I’ll come back, and hopefully start a business,” creating an opportunity to collaborate on projects with his brother, who is employed by a local heating and cooling company.
King is one of 300 students attending technical colleges in South Dakota on a full-ride Build Dakota scholarship. The program is meant to help students like King pursue high-need careers, as long as they agree to live and work in South Dakota for at least three years upon graduation. He is among 70 students at STI selected for the first round of scholarships. Eight are in the school’s plumbing program.
The free ride is a small incentive to go to college, but a huge incentive to staying focused in his studies.
“I’m not really entirely in it for the money,” he said. “Helping the community and giving back and being around my family and the place I grew up is what’s in it for me.”
Building a housing market
If local leaders have their way, work will be plentiful for the King brothers and other local contractors.
“Arlington needs housing,” Uphoff said. “The housing ecosystem is unbalanced (and) we’re working together to try to find that balance.”
Funeral director Charlie Johnson funded one of two spec houses constructed in town earlier this year, because many of the homes on the market are “not even worth trying to fix up.”
“At any given time, we have about four houses on the market, and maybe one out of the four is a house that you would want to” live in, Uphoff agreed.
The 1,170-square-foot house constructed in the Johnson Addition of town has two bedrooms and two bathrooms on the main floor, with an additional two bedrooms and one bathroom “roughed in” in the basement.
“If I get an offer of $182,000, somebody’s going to own it,” Johnson said, adding that similar homes in nearby Brookings sell for around $30,000 more.
Johnson’s development was designed around an idea consistent with the community’s overall philosophy: cooperation.
“I used as many Arlington contractors as I could, because if we don’t scratch our backs here, other people come in, and I just don’t care for that idea,” he said.
And the local contractors, too, have at least a temporary investment into the home. Johnson worked out a deal in which the contractors hold off on payment for their services until the house sells and, for some of the contractors, payment will not be received until the second and even third houses Johnson has planned are purchased. It’s an arrangement made possible only by decades-old relationships built on trust.
To sustain necessary growth in a town the size of Arlington, two houses should be constructed annually, according to Uphoff. And, though that number was met in 2015, the town has another need.
“If we could get a four-plex in across the street, we’d be in business,” he said. Arlington “needs single-family housing, too, but one of the things it has essentially zero of is any kind of legitimate transition housing. … That’s kind of the missing link that we’re working on.”
The city has begun to explore the idea of creating a Tax Increment Financing district, which allows businesses to borrow money from local developers for new construction and expansion, with payback coming from their future property tax, to help get the project off the ground, because building a property such as that takes considerable risk.
“The rise in real estate lease prices has not ascended as quickly in Arlington as the cost of manufacturing, so you’re not going to be able to build a place and charge … (enough) to cover the mortgage,” Uphoff said.
If potential business developments in and around Arlington come to fruition, the need for additional housing will escalate quickly.
“This quiet little town that’s been maintaining itself is going to have to respond,” Mayor Amiel Redfish said. “If we don’t respond, other people will in other places.”
Last year, the community was temporarily shaken when Global Polymer uprooted its local operations and moved to Madison. Within a few months, however, Brown Mink Farm/Top Lot Processing, a longtime rural Arlington business, moved part of its operations into town.
“We kind of got lucky with the expansion, in the sense that we have a local person wanting to fill a large space like that, because you need the right” business to occupy the 50,000-square-foot building, Uphoff said.
Another business also discussed expanding into Arlington when that building became available.
“I think we’re still going to get them,” Uphoff said. “I think we’re going to have to build them a building, but that’s not all bad.”
Already, the city is responding in some ways.
To facilitate commercial growth and increased household energy demands, over the next few years, $3.4 million will be spent to improve the public energy system.
“The electrical growth from the citizens and everything in town has pretty much outgrown our 1950s electrical system,” Redfish said. “We will have to have that power available” during the months that the local elevator—which is in the midst of expansion—needs it.
Though the buzz in community planning currently centers on diversity, Redfish, who himself is a minority, who moved to Arlington from the Rosebud Reservation three decades ago, said that’s off base a bit.
“You don’t need to push that. You need to push opportunity,” he said, “because if you have that, diversity will happen, because diversity comes with a purpose to work and be productive with opportunity. That’s the way to get diversity.”
And amenities sell communities, too.
“People need to be entertained, they need to be fed.”
Refining business, defining success
In order to be successful in a small town, businesses must learn to adapt, according to Karl Stegge, owner of the Cardinal Tap bar and grill.
“You have to do what the community needs—maybe not necessarily what they want, or think they want—but you have to do what they need and can support,” he said.
Stegge purchased what was a restaurant, never planning to own a bar, or even to make pizzas.
“That wasn’t the plan,” he said, but sales data quickly proved that the community could not support a Main Street café.
“People don’t have a lot of time for that kind of stuff anymore—breakfast and lunch—especially in a bedroom community,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of our community is not available during the day,” and two other restaurants and the convenience store provide daytime dining opportunities.
Instead of competing with the other food service locations in town, Stegge sought a niche, and the others have done the same. Shifting out of breakfast and lunch mode did not come without growing pains, however.
“A lot of the changes we’ve made here haven’t always been popular,” he said, and people have argued that things shouldn’t change, but “we’ve never made a change that wasn’t based on sales, or what the community needed, and it’s worked. We’re still here.”
Recently, Cardinal Tap took another chance when it invested in a state-of-the-art chilled tap system and began offering 120 different bottled beers, and renovated an adjacent building into additional space, including electronic dartboards and video lottery, because Stegge said he wished to “make you feel like you’re someplace else.”
“It’s not like Arlington is a bad place, but I think sometimes people just want to ‘go out,’” he said. “I often think a lot of times, that’s why people go other places, instead of going in town.”
The goal is to give residents in neighboring communities a reason to come to Arlington—and to give locals one more reason to stay in town.
“Everybody’s always beating the drum of getting more businesses, but you’d better figure out how you’re going to keep the ones you’ve got,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to recruit customers than it is to keep them. Focus on keeping them first, whether you’re retail or Main Street. Make sure everybody’s healthy.”
Thriving through ‘coopetition’
Gaylene Christensen said the best way to lure outside consumers into town is through “coopetition”—or cooperating with businesses in town and in the region, competing against those outside the area.
Christensen, owner of The Prairie Porch, is among entrepreneurs from Huron to the Minnesota state line who are creating a “Shop Highway 14” campaign.
“We’re trying to get women to think on a larger scale,” to spend a few days exploring communities and businesses along the 90-mile stretch, she said.
In Arlington, Christensen and others have created a “boutique destination.”
“Together the three of us are stronger, making Arlington a fun, spontaneous daytrip,” she said about the work she and two other Arlington businesses do to promote each other’s businesses, which was featured in the June/July edition of Dakotafire.
And she’s helping other women dream of their own business opportunities, too. This year, Mix is working at The Prairie Porch as part of the school’s job-shadowing program, and Christensen is encouraging her to think of Arlington when planning future business ventures.
“A lot of time, people say, ‘(the locals) will never support you.’ They’re wrong,” she said. “We’re all kind of sharing that need to keep us all here. If you want to … make mistakes, do it here. You’ve got the supportive people to help you get through that. If you make mistakes in a larger city, that person next to you doesn’t really care if your store makes it or not. We care. We want everybody to succeed here.”
Networking with neighbors
The business climate in Arlington is the product of “the double-edged sword of distance from local retail centers,” according to Uphoff.
“We’re far enough away that we can support some of the businesses that you might not (otherwise) be able to, like a grocery or hardware store, but at the same time, we’re close enough that there’s not going to be … general purpose retail shops on Main Street,” he said.
For that reason, leadership of Arlington’s Chamber of Commerce agreed the coopetition concept is key.
“I think it’s important that we work with not just the community, but the people around us,” said chamber President Deb Wingle, who owns the Arlington Inn. “When they feel welcome, they send people to us.”
Residents of Arlington often attend the celebrations of neighboring communities and shop in those towns’ stores.
“I think there’s a regionalization effort. I think that’s evident, but I think it’s also how things have panned out,” Uphoff said, suggesting communities tend to redefine themselves with athletic cooperatives. This year, Arlington has paired up with Lake Preston, 13 miles to the west.
Community events come together by the work of “a lot of people working together,” according to chamber Vice President Katie Beck, who works at a family business, Norgaard Insurance.
“Arlington struggles with the same kind of never-ending questions of viability that small towns deal with,” Uphoff said. The chamber works to fight the problems of “that nagging belief that it’s a small town and there’s nothing to do and there’s no opportunity here,” while simultaneously “trying to draw folks in from out of town, to try to add something to the Main Street.”
Cultivating health, friendship
As the final project for her master gardener’s class a few years ago, physician’s assistant Tonya Froehlich decided to integrate her health focus and gardening knowledge to combat America’s obesity epidemic at the local level.
Last year, five individuals planted on 10-by- 12-foot gardening plots within one of two lots donated to the project. A local agronomy company sprays all of the plots, and participants gather to grow fruits, vegetables and friendships.
“It’s a nice social thing,” Froehlich said, as “you share ideas and watch each other’s crops grow.”
Eventually, she hopes to develop a community farmers market and canning classes, to handle any abundance of harvest.
“This is a great way to show how you can live off the land,” she said.
Next year, Froehlich hopes to work with the school, to involve more youth. In May, she hopes students will visit the garden weekly to “nurture their plants along and really get the whole process of where their food comes from.”
It’s an agenda Froehlich hopes will prevent the children of today from being the chronic and terminal illness patients she sees in the future.
“I don’t know how else to get kids interested in eating vegetables,” she said. “It’s hard to get kids to like vegetables, but if you start them from seed and nurture them along, they’re kind of your project.”
Caring for the young together
In 2008, a group of Arlington parents banded together to fill a child care gap.
“One of the board members had twins, and nobody in town would take two babies at the same time,” so a community day care was born, according to Amber Uphoff, who has managed the center since August.
The center employs 14 people, can take up to 45 kids, offers morning preschool, and is near capacity most of the time.
“Everyone knows every staff member here, and that’s nice,” Uphoff said. “They know they’re safe and well-cared for.”
Moving into a community like Arlington can take some adjustment for a family used to living in more suburban settings.
“We came from Texas and Oklahoma, where you don’t let your kids go outside,” said Uphoff, who moved to town a year ago with her husband, Jason (a Sioux Falls native who entered the military after graduation), while expecting their fourth child.
The couple, who kept their children safe inside a fenced-in yard, were shocked to see children running and playing freely in Arlington, and said they would “never” let their children do the same. Now, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I would hate to move out of the neighborhood we’re in, because our kids love it,” Amber said. “You can’t beat Arlington.”