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The small towns comprising the five counties of the Upper Minnesota River Valley offer many examples of affordable and well kept houses that match our idyllic expectations for small town living. This home is among those currently on the market in Clara City. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Small towns, but big housing needs

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West Central Tribune
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Small towns, but big housing needs
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

MONTEVIDEO -- So far, the five counties comprising the Upper Minnesota River Valley have escaped the big rise in housing foreclosures that trouble urban areas of the state.

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Yet the small towns that fill these five counties -- Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine -- have big enough housing issues of their own to address, according to comments and information presented Thursday at a forum hosted by the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission in Montevideo.

"A rough-looking building hurts everything,'' said Gene Wenstrom, an economic development consultant serving the communities of Appleton, Clara City and Clarkfield.

Wenstrom was addressing one of the primary issues to rise during the forum: What to do about the dilapidated houses scattered about the residential areas of many small towns. Economic hardships or the need to leave for jobs elsewhere have led some to essentially abandon older homes they cannot sell.

The communities are also seeing a growing need for rental properties, but have seen only limited development of new units.

And, many of the small communities in the region would like to develop smaller-scale apartment and assisted living facilities to keep elderly residents. They often lack the resources or the models to make it happen in their communities.

Wenstrom said one of the vexing problems is that when owners essentially abandon their homes, no action can be taken until after they have not paid property taxes for five consecutive years. After five years of neglect, it's too late, said Wenstrom.

The only option is to raze the structures, but no one wants to take on those costs. The structures remain to the detriment of neighboring properties.

"Your values go down too,'' noted Jackie Anderson, a planner with the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission.

The communities report a need for the development of more affordable rental properties. The region's housing stock is among the oldest in the state, and new construction of all kinds has not kept pace with what the region would like to see.

There's a big gap between the pace at which construction costs and income levels rose in the region, pointed out Lisa Graphenteen with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership.

Where jobs are being created, houses are going up. Mayor Gene Bies of Canby in western Yellow Medicine County said the growth of wind power has benefited the local economy. Outland Renewable Energy and SMI in neighboring Porter have been steadily adding workers. Canby, population 1,710, has watched 30 new homes go up in the last 10 years, and now the city is looking at the need to build more infrastructure to allow additional growth, he said.

The mayor said the community needs affordable rental housing, not just for entry-level workers but also for students enrolled in the wind power program at the Minnesota West Community and Technical College campus in the community.

Rental housing is just as important on the western end of Chippewa County in the community of Milan, population 282. Virtually all of the 100-plus Micronesians who comprise more than one-third of the community's population rely on it, noted Mayor Nancy Strand.

She said communities like hers would also like to see apartments and assisted living facilities for seniors developed on a smaller scale, perhaps facilities with only four or five units. It would allow elderly residents no longer able to care for their homes to remain in their hometowns.

Strand pointed out that the smaller communities do not have the city staff and resources to pursue housing issues as well as their larger neighbors, and can lose out because of it.

Even when jobs are available in the smaller towns, the workers live elsewhere due to housing issues, she explained.

The Milan mayor has lots of company when it comes to the challenges that small towns face. Anderson pointed out that 70 percent of the 37 communities in the five counties have populations of less than 500.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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