How a small town changed their economy

Cranbrook hears about a community in South Dakota that turned its future around – and it all started with a group of passionate teenagers

Cranbrook and District Chamber of Commerce manager Karin Penner (left) and president Lana Kirk (right) with visiting speaker Kathy Callies from Miner County

Cranbrook got a visit this week from the head of a South Dakota community revitalization project, who inspired hundreds with the story of how a group of high school students changed the town’s path.Kathy Callies from Howard, South Dakota, spoke at the Cranbrook and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday, October 17, before speaking at the College of the Rockies on Wednesday evening.She shared how in the late 1990s, a high school teacher challenged the entire school of 200 children to look at the economy in Miner County, South Dakota.”It’s an extraordinary story about very ordinary people working in a place they love and their hometown,” said Callies, who is part of the Miner County Community Revitalization Project, now the Rural Learning Center.The county has a population of 3,000; its city Howard contains 1,000 of that population. In South Dakota, there’s a six per cent sales tax, of which four per cent goes to the state, and two per cent to the county.But the population had been declining for more than 90 years, and businesses were struggling. Many young people would finish high school and go elsewhere to study. The larger centre of Sioux Falls is only an hour’s drive away and many people would do their shopping there.”It used to be a great place to be. It used to be where you wanted to raise a family,” said Callies.”The real power of this story is that all at once these high school kids said no. No more ‘used to be’.”The students conducted a survey of Miner County residents to determine where they were spending their disposable income. The survey asked residents to break down their disposable income into categories such as groceries, gasoline, gifts, clothing, health care, and home improvement materials.”What if you would decide to spend 10 per cent more at home?”the students began to ask, Callies said. “Don’t spend 10 per cent more overall, but just decide to spend it at home.”The students worked out that if 600 people made this change, it would add $5 million to the local gross sales.”What they didn’t forecast is what a difference a young person makes,” said Callies.”Local gross sales increased over $15 million in one year’s time.”From there, the community leveraged this success to transform the county. Today, the Rural Learning Center is one of 13 new organizations – 11 non-profit and two for profit.They tore down the empty, dilapidated buildings on their main street and built a day care centre, and a multi-use facility that contains a hotel, conference centre, restaurant, bar and renewable energy training centre.Callies shared that since the late 1990s, local tax revenue in Miner County has held relatively steady at 81 per cent above the 1995 level.She added that Howard is much smaller than Cranbrook, so there is no guarantee that the initiative would be as successful here, but it is worth a “robust conversation”.”One of the things I’m very taken with is your desire to have this community feel like a small town and the good things about that,” said Callies.”The greatest resource in our community – and I think it’s true here – is all of us and what we bring to the table.”