GRANITE FALLS — In the conviction that the arts can revitalize rural communities, and faith in a building inspector’s assessment that “its bones were good,” Ashley Hanson said “yes.”

She accepted a family’s gift a few years ago and took ownership of a building in downtown Granite Falls.

Formerly used as a pharmacy and before that a Sears store, it had stood vacant for most of two decades. Its upstairs apartments had been vacant for at least 15 years.

It’s now the YES! House, and the reason why Hanson and Hannah Holman were leading a group of local residents on a tour inside it. The two are part of the leadership for the nonprofit organization responsible for the building, the Department of Public Transformation. The artist-led organization works for "increased community connection, civic engagement, and equitable participation in rural places."

Not quite two years ago, volunteers with the organization began tearing apart the building's insides during “demolition workshops” to prepare it for its new role.

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Hanson and Holman told their guests that the goal is to transform this building into a community gathering place. It will be a place where visiting artists will take up residency, and local residents can gather.

Holman said they held listening sessions with residents and artists and worked with architect Miranda Moen with the Southwest Housing Partnership to develop plans for the building. “She’s been involved every step of the way,” said Holman of Moen’s role.

The goal is to develop the following in the 5,000-square-foot, three-story facility: A co-working space, small business incubator, performance venue, art gallery, media lab, youth zone, artist workshop, recording studio, yoga/dance studio, two apartments and a rock climbing area.

To that they add: “And a place to enjoy a good cup of coffee and conversation.”

The conversations are already taking place, and were the purpose of the recent tour. They are launching a capital campaign to make the goals possible. They are about one-third of the way toward a $900,000 goal, said Hanson. A portion of the funds will be used for operations with an eye toward making it self-sustaining.

There's a lot of work to do on the building, and the COVID-19 pandemic did not help. Yet some progress has been made: The upstairs now holds two refurbished apartments. One is now home to the city’s artist-in-residence, Dani Padros. The Department of Transformation has made this community of just over 2,700 people one of the first rural communities to embed an artist-in-residence in city affairs.

Hanson had originally landed in Granite Falls as co-founder of PlaceBase Productions. She and fellow co-founder Andrew Gaylord in 2015 produced a “paddle theater” in which audience members paddled canoes along the Minnesota River to locations where actors performed.

It was the first of a number of plays produced by PlaceBase Productions in rural Minnesota communities. The two hold sessions with local residents and learn about the place. They write and produce plays that tell the stories of the communities. Area residents are the actors.

About four years ago, Hanson’s passion for rural communities and art led her to take a cross-country trip to rural communities. It’s when she also developed the Department of Public Transformation. She is now both a Bush Fellow and one of the inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows.

The guests on the recent tour of the YES! House gathered in the upstairs apartment overlooking the community’s Main Street to hear Hanson and Holman describe the goals for it. Hanson told her guests that when she and Gaylord produced the first play on the community’s history, they had gathered groups of residents and asked them what they wanted to see in downtown.

At that time, she said, the most often mentioned desires were for a cafe, an ice cream shop and more local specialty shops.

Looking out over the street from the YES! House, Hanson noted that she now saw all of the above in the works.

She and Holman said they are eager to see the YES! House play a role in keeping this momentum. “People are excited to see things happen,” said Hanson.