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Keeping a spot on the map: New road signs demonstrate local pride for Sunburg

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SUNBURG — Sunburg doesn’t have a water tower visibly announcing the town’s name.

There’s no sign on Kandiyohi County Highway 7 as the road enters the south end of town. And after a storm last summer destroyed the remaining “Welcome to Sunburg” sign at Highway 7 and Minnesota Highway 9, there’s been no sign on the north end of town either.

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But this is about to change. Brand-new signs are being installed at both locations this spring, thanks to the efforts of city officials and many volunteers.

In this town of 100, which treasures its strong Norwegian heritage, civic identity isn’t something that’s taken for granted.

“It’s a pride thing,” said Pat Berg of the Sunburg Commercial Club. “It’s saying this is our town and welcome to our town.”

Organizers were crossing their fingers that the new signs would be installed in time for Sunburg’s annual Syttende Mai celebration on Sunday, but wet weather led to delays.

No matter, though. Whether they go up next week or next month, town leaders hope the custom-designed signs — colorful in red, white and blue, the national colors of both the U.S. and Norway, and touting the city as the home of Syttende Mai — not only reinforce Sunburg’s place on the map but help promote economic vitality as well.

“We hope it makes a significant difference in the way they view themselves and the way others view them,” said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

New signs on the main highway through town have been talked about for years, according to Carol Gjerde, a longtime member of the Commercial Club.

But efforts were constantly stymied by cost and by a city budget with little to spare.

“It just didn’t materialize,” Gjerde said.

Local volunteers persisted, however. Every year when the Commercial Club sat down to plan the Syttende Mai celebration, the topic of new signs came up. The Sons of Norway, the Sunburg Trolls Car Club and the American Legion of New London all donated money. Local quilters chipped in with a fund-raising raffle for a handmade quilt.

The pieces finally came together this spring when Sunburg successfully applied for a $1,000 grant from the Economic Development Commission to help cover the cost of new signs.

The Sunburg City Council had already voted to approve the purchase and installation of one sign. The balance that wasn’t covered by donations was to be shared between the city of Sunburg and the Commercial Club.

With the grant from the EDC, the city can now acquire two signs (total cost: $3,162). The grant also reduces the city’s and the Commercial Club’s share of the bill.

“It really brought the project together,” said Berg, who wrote the grant application.

The signs have a practical purpose but, more than this, they’re symbolic of a community determined to stay on the map.

Like many small cities, Sunburg has seen the loss of local businesses and population.

“It’s really changed since back in the Sixties,” said Milt Tollefson, a city councilman and longtime resident who over the years has been the town mayor, fire chief and ambulance volunteer.

At one time there were two banks, two grocery stores, a manufacturing plant, hardware stores, filling stations, a creamery and a school, he said. Many are now gone and the surviving businesses struggle to compete with nearby larger towns.

The challenge for towns like Sunburg is to maintain what they have, Tollefson said.

Sunburg is making the effort. It still has a bank, a gas station, a hardware store and a busy café. Residents can buy a gallon of milk in town instead of driving 10 miles or more to the nearest store. If you need something special, a local merchant can usually order it for you, Gjerde said.

The town’s Norwegian roots remain as strong as ever. The Syttende Mai celebration on Sunday, commemorating Norway’s establishment as an independent country on May 17, 1814, boasts a parade, a picnic, games and plentiful sightings of the Norwegian flag and national costumes.

“People really come out and respond to it,” Gjerde said. “The street is lined with people. Some of the other towns around can’t believe we get that many people to come out.”

The City Council’s approval this past year of property tax abatements for two local businesses sent a message that “Sunburg is open for business,” Renquist said.

“We can work with what we’ve got to work with,” he said. “They’re a small town but they’re a town that’s rolling up their sleeves and trying.”

Berg, a Nebraska transplant who married a Sunburg-area farmer, says she loves the town.

“Everybody knows you and they know your business but on the flip side, they are there for you when something happens,” she said. “The community physically is beautiful. I love the Norwegian heritage here. I’m very proud of it. Even though I’m not a native, I think the signs are important for Sunburg.”

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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