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What makes small towns thrive?
MAY 27, 2013

University students identify the elements to DC’s success

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

“The new Mayberry” was what one team from the University of Minnesota coined the Dassel-Cokato community following a leadership development exercise in which students met with community members in April.

Twenty-four University of Minnesota students interviewed 40 people who were considered to be leaders in the Dassel-Cokato community in an effort to find what makes small towns thrive.

It was also an opportunity for the college students to learn how they can pursue gaining leadership experience as they enter the workforce.

The exercise was through a Rural Leadership Development course taught by a well-respected University of Minnesota professor, Dr. Rohland Peterson.

Each spring, Peterson takes his class to rural communities to study what makes good leaders in a small town. Such towns in the past have been Sanborn, Olivia, and Plainview.

Through an interview process with members of the community, including local pastors, city and school officials, and business owners, students were asked to determine what makes good leaders in a rural community, what makes the community thrive, what people view as important aspects of the community, and how can such communities survive in today’s environment.

Peterson explained that many of the students grew up in rural communities and/or would prefer to live and work in a smaller community, most likely in the agriculture industry or within a school district teaching agriculture. This exercise was a way for them to see how they can gain credibility and exercise leadership as potential newcomers, Peterson explained.

In teams of three, students interviewed five people within the community. Some of those interviewed included Bruce Bohnsack, retired dentist; Jody Danielson, salon owner; Dan Robertson, bank president; Pastor Steve Olson of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel, DC Schools Superintendent Jeff Powers, Mayor Gordy Erickson, Mike Worcester, museum director; Richard Tormanen, former school board member; Steve Dille, former legislator; and Dan Bravinder, business owner.

Peterson explained that the students had studied research done by Heartland Center for Leadership Development, which identified 20 clues to rural community survival.

The top two factors that came out on top were a strong evidence of community pride and strong support in the education system.

“In all the research done, the education system is the center of many rural communities,” Peterson commented.

These factors would also hold true as the students’ reports came rolling in, summarizing their findings as outsiders looking into the DC community.

A strong education system and sense of community pride were among commonalities in the reports.

One team noted, “It was clear, throughout all of the interviews, that the true tie that bound the community together was the Dassel-Cokato education system. Every person . . . discussed how much pride they personally had in the school system.”

Faith and strong family values were also noted as important aspects the community holds on to, which contribute to the overall safety and security found in the Dassel-Cokato area.

A point of pride in the community can be found in the Performing Arts Center, which was said to be a “great way to bring entertainment to the community in the form of the musical artists and other performers that use the theatre.”

A community rich in tradition was also defined with the community festivals of Red Rooster Days and Cokato Corn Carnival, and how volunteers help make events like these a success.

Some of the challenges noted in the reports included a lack of opportunities for the “younger generation.” One interviewee was quoted as saying, “There isn’t much to draw a young person back to the community except for their family ties.”

Another concern is the lack of activities for youth outside of school and that the community is increasingly becoming a “bedroom community,” where people lay their heads at night, though work and shop elsewhere.

Interviewees also mentioned a “severe lack of retail industry” and the negative impact of the hardware stores closing.

As part of the class, students also learned myths about the future of small towns, two of which are that small towns don’t have a future, and that the best people leave as soon as they can.

“There is more than enough evidence to put these myths to bed,” one group commented.

“We have found that people choose to move back to this community because of the friendly citizens and a great place to raise a family.”

It was also noted that there are employment opportunities and a “strong entrepreneurial spirit.”

“In our view, anyone is lucky to move here and enjoy everything a small town has to offer.”

From the professor’s standpoint, this exercise was an “extremely rich” one, and an eye-opener for the students.

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