By Jennifer Von Ohlen
DASSEL, MN In selecting destinations to visit, decisions are often based on one or more unique aspects of the location, such as the food, the traditions/culture, or an activity one cannot engage in anywhere else (or, at least, much closer).
For Kyle Ackerman, founder of Xtratyme Technologies in Dassel, one of the greatest joys in traveling is identifying the “pulse” or the focal point that demonstrates the town’s heart and personality.
It is the place members of each generation come together and display a community, he explained.
What he has found throughout the years, however, is that these places are becoming increasingly difficult to find, as small town restaurants, cafes, or other businesses have either disappeared or been overshadowed by larger corporations.
As a result, Ackerman believes the personality of these communities is also fading.
Not that the businesses or city focal points themselves define community, but rather what residents do at these locations coming together for the simple interest of seeing who else is there and catching up on life.
“Because we have lost this ability to gather as a community, our towns are becoming a collection of neighborhoods, and we are losing our overall small-town personalities,” stated Ackerman.
Instead, most socializing appears to be occurring online, turning the physical community into a virtual one.
“This could kill small-town America as we know it,” continued Ackerman. “For some reason, we believe, in today’s world, that virtual interactions can accomplish the same things that used to be done with ‘real’ interactions. We are fooling ourselves.”
In an effort to revive small-town focal points and the sense of a connected community, Xtratyme Technologies is establishing a TECKNOcenter (TC) in Dassel, a concept of its original business plan from 1999.
A TC, as described by Ackerman, is a place “people can gather at random times and create a meaningful physical social experience.” In effect, the TC staff will interact and discover local talent and potential entrepreneurship for Dassel.
The name is an acronym for the many ambitions and goals the TC is designed to achieve: time; entertainment; community; knowledge; networking; and opportunity, all at the “center” of town.
With the intent of offering a comfortable, engaging environment for all ages, the TC will have a variety of activities available for a social experience.
However, Ackerman said it is especially important that the TC is appealing to millennials, whom he says are almost fully virtualized and will determine the direction of the country for the next 20 years or more.
“If this generation doesn’t show leadership and vision in our cities, our country is going to continue to become more virtualized,” he added. “Without the influx of millennial leaders, our small towns could become ghost towns.”
Generation Z is another “virtualized generation,” having grown up surrounded by text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.
Just as providing a place for millennial physical interaction is essential for the future of small towns, Ackerman said reaching Generation Z is also important.
“Some of us in the other generations have mistakenly assumed that this generation only wants virtual social environments. This is not true at all,” Ackerman stated. “This generation is no different than any other in that they need a good balance of physical interactions, too.”
This is one of the reasons the TC might at first appear to be a teen and young adult entertainment center, offering several gaming opportunities such as console, PC, board, ping pong, billiards, shuffleboards, arcade games, and more.
However, the TC is designed to be more than that.
Because a community consists of members from each generation, the 11,000-sq.-ft. facility is meant to provide activities that will invite these age groups to interact and get to know one another.
“Most of the small-town America community knowledge exists in the brains of our older generations,” said Ackerman. “Our model would be flawed if we didn’t have a plan to interact and conduct a knowledge transfer with these great folks.”
Therefore, in addition to gaming, the TC will also feature live music, a workshop area for guests to experience hands-on trades, food services, a quiet corner for social lounging or reading, and other entertainment.
A portion of the building will also be office space for aspiring business owners, another aspect of the TC’s purpose.
Besides providing a site of communal social gathering, the TC will be on the look out for individuals with promising business ideas and provide an environment for them to execute their thoughts.
“We have discovered that many people have good business ideas, but they don’t know how to get started,” said Ackerman.
Classifying the TC as also being a dream and business incubator, Ackerman says it will help aspiring individuals identify and fill their visions’ “voids” by supplying mentorships, resources, and the opportunity to test their ideas.
The TC will even have an “incubator kitchen” for emerging restaurant owners to develop new menu ideas and test them.
“The advantage we have over other incubator resources is that we get to work with people that we know very well people who have visited us often,” stated Ackerman. “We get to introduce these people to local mentors and other resources that can help them to achieve their dreams.”
Willing to assist with developing a business plan, marketing, customer service, and other elements, the TC will offer the business a trial run to see how the it holds up. Once the business has some solid data to prove it is a worthwhile investment, the business owner will have an easier time attaining funding to relocate and succeed.
“Our concept will allow the ideas to be tested with minimal investment before spending significant money on a full-blown facility,” Ackerman stated.
While attracting new businesses especially restaurants to Dassel is an objective, Ackerman says it is not meant to hinder businesses already established in town.
Instead, he says the vision will also bring more business to their doors.
He explained, “in the free-market world, when someone offers a good product or service and they attract a larger customer base, a creative competing entrepreneur will try to gather a piece of the action.”
“However, the quality bar will be raised and the good entrepreneurs will realize that if they step up their game, they will experience continued success,” he continued. Everyone will win.”
To help businesses “raise the bar,” the TC will help identify their needs and offer assistance, whether it is locating a reliable manager, someone with strong customer service skills, or training restaurant servers.
“We have already developed a professional server training program that is designed to create a job scenario where a very inexperienced server could quickly earn an average of $30-$40 per hour, and ultimately garner wages over $80 per hour,” Ackerman stated.
Those who graduate from the program have the potential to then be placed at various area restaurants.
Ackerman said similar programs will also be available so local employers have “easy access to a quality labor force.”
An additional unique aspect of the business incubator is that it will be privately funded, not utilizing taxpayer dollars.
“If an incubator is designed to use taxpayer funds, it is often hard to create a model that is self-sufficient, and continued taxpayer funding is required to keep it alive. This model does not work in small towns and it is unlikely that it works in larger communities,” explained Ackerman.
The big idea
Dassel is set to be the pilot TC facility, with the hope that more will develop in other small towns throughout the nation.
“We’d love to make Dassel the ‘world headquarters’ for TC operations everywhere,” stated Ackerman.
The TC will be located at 471 3rd St North in Dassel, right along Highway 12.
Though an official launch date is not known yet, the facility is expected to have full-time hours early 2017.
Several hosting events are planned in the nearer future, however, and updates and additional information can be found on the Facebook page: Dassel TECKNOcenter.