by Anna Jauhola
While some rural towns may see one another as competitors, other
communities in the Dakotas work to create symbiotic relationships. Here are some ideas about developing regional roles from communities that are seeing and acting on opportunities from a regional perspective.
1. Your community is part of a larger system, and the people in it are already acting regionally.
Scott Amundson, executive director of Glacial Lakes Area Development Corporation, operates out of Britton, S.D. GLAD’s five towns—Britton, Langford, Veblen, Eden and Lake City—work well together in each finding a niche in the region, he said.
“They are very collaborative when sharing business,” Amundson said. “Competitive, yet collaborative, whether it’s to get parts or share employees. There’s no pressure, but they embrace the opportunities and understand the need for people to come to town and support businesses.”
A simultaneous trickle-down/trickle-up effect takes place between regional hubs and their “suburbs.” Cities like Aberdeen rely upon communities such as Britton to fill their workforce and customer base needs, and Britton needs the same from smaller towns like Langford and Veblen. And people who live in those smaller communities benefit from having more options for working, shopping, doctoring and dining than a smaller town could provide.
2. The road from small towns to larger ones is short—both ways.
“People in South Dakota are used to driving a ways to work, to find the careers that they find rewarding, but they also want to live in the locations—or the communities—that … they love,” according to Rita Nelson, workforce development coordinator with Yankton (S.D.) Area Progressive Growth. “The distance from Yankton to Freeman is the same, whether you’re driving from Freeman to Yankton, or (from) Yankton to Freeman.”
Nelson said her region recently turned to regional economic development because they have recognized that where people live and where they work are often separate—sometimes by choice.
Britton is a small town filling an opposite role to most its size. Instead of sending its workforce out into larger communities each morning, the town of 1,200 draws 700 people to it, to fill the demands of a large manufacturer. That supports commerce in Britton, but it also circulates money back into the small surrounding communities through the paychecks of the people who return home to those communities.
The challenge in that situation is making sure the people in the smaller-yet towns aren’t the only ones traveling. Some smaller towns have thought about ways to combat that. Residents in Langford banded together to turn empty Main Street lots into a space filled with jobs and other activity through Main Street Center, a plaza housing a restaurant, lounge, chiropractor, salon and a Grow South Dakota satellite office that pull people from neighboring communities—including Britton—into the town of 300.
3. Understanding a community’s regional role starts with knowing and building on what it has to offer.
“Understanding what resources they have and don’t have is important,” said Dave Lambert, executive director of the Dakota Heartland Development Association said. “It’s about looking and doing an assessment of what assets they have. Then not saying, ‘This is all we’ve got,’ but saying, ‘What do we need?’”
Some rural communities may find their niche as a “bedroom community,” and it’s important to remember that that does not mean that community is somehow less valuable to the region than homes to more extensive commerce.
Small communities have long lamented that larger cities were drawing people away. These days, Lambert said, it’s not cities causing the problems, but rather the lack of planning or collaboration by small communities that causes issues.
Rural towns have an opportunity to capitalize on something people from larger communities long for: slower, quieter living. If a bedroom community has room for new housing or has available housing, Lambert suggested leaders work to advertise it to as broad of an audience as possible.
“Do the best you can with what you’ve got,” he said. “Make it easily accessible and available. Many people are going to go to a website to see what’s available.”
4. Communities that have built upon their strengths and filled in necessary gaps can see other communities’ needs as opportunities.
Forty-five years into its partnership with Britton’s largest employer, work is underway to create an even larger workforce to support the business’s desire for further local expansion.
One way to do this, according to Amundson, is to focus on recruiting the workforce born and raised locally.
“Part of our mission at GLAD is to support bringing graduates back or keeping graduates in the area,” he said, so connecting students with scholarship to get them into the careers best suited to the Dakotas and helping them move home is crucial.
Connecting graduates with local industries or scholarships geared toward keeping people in South Dakota is important, he added.