Swift County residents looking to grow their communities in western Minnesota
Residents across Swift County joined with Deb Brown of Building Possibility to discuss the futures they want to see for their communities
APPLETON — Give Deb Brown some credit for moxie.
In the dead of winter, she went from town to town in Swift County to meet with their cold-weary residents and dared to ask: “What do you want?”
The answer she heard back wasn’t a ticket to warmer places. Whether chatting with folks at Sherrie’s Cafe in Kerkhoven or at the Town Hall in Holloway , one underlying theme emerged. Just about everyone told her they are looking for ways to help their communities grow and welcome more residents.
Especially, people want to do what’s needed to retain or bring back the young people raised in them.
“More things for our youth to do so they hopefully want to come back someday,” said Jon Heinecke, a co-owner of Appleton Oil Company, during a discussion held Wednesday in Appleton.
Brown left Swift County feeling optimistic that it can happen, she told the West Central Tribune.
“The fact that different communities are already in action with small ideas is so encouraging,” she said.
Brown, who makes her home in Iowa, is described as a “small-town enthusiast and expert for small towns.” She operates Building Possibility and visits small towns to help them identify their opportunities for economic growth. The county’s economic development agency, Swift County Development , sponsored her visit with financial support from the communities of Benson , Appleton and Kerkhoven.
Brown spent the first three days of this past week holding informal input sessions in every Swift County community, starting each with that question: What do you want?
Everywhere she went, the top need cited by those attending the get-togethers was “housing.”
“We need it in so many facets,” said Gary Hendrickx, a Swift County commissioner, speaking as part of a group of nearly two dozen people who gathered Wednesday with Brown at Shooter’s Bar and Grill in Appleton.
At the session in Appleton, a desire to improve aging buildings and the appearance of the community was frequently cited. Brown said she heard similar concerns expressed around the county.
The needs identified by participants varied across the county. In the Kerkhoven and Murdock area, a need for more child care was raised. The topic wasn’t raised as frequently in Benson or Appleton, where school-sponsored initiatives for child care have helped meet the need.
Brown said she frequently heard a desire by participants at the sessions to see more citizen involvement in their communities.
She offered suggestions on how to get more people involved, but Brown also noted that Swift County communities have reason for optimism. There is a lot of community involvement taking place in the county.
Brown said she believes the county’s biggest challenge is marketing the area. The county has valuable resources for tourism, which is an economic driver for many rural areas, she told the West Central Tribune. The recreational assets important to tourism make the county desirable for young people to make it home as well.
Swift County offers a family-friendly environment that many desire.
“Once people come here they start to think, ‘wow, this is kind of cool,’” she told the West Central Tribune. But if this lifestyle is not promoted to prospective residents, she asked: “How are they going to find out?”
She encouraged residents at the sessions to take on projects that promote being a good neighbor, as well as those that make it fun to live in a community. Small activities make possible the word-of-mouth promotion that can matter most, she explained. “Excited people spread exciting news,” she said.
Leanna Larson, director of Swift County Development, said she was among those who heard Brown speak previously at a conference. They were impressed by her presentation and the images she showed of success stories in rural communities like those in Swift County.
She said the development agency is hoping her visit will get people to dream a little bit about what their communities can be, as it’s so easy to get stuck in how things are.
“Get people thinking about the possibilities,” said Larson. “That is the most exciting part of it all.”
People will have the opportunity to hear from Brown on what she learned during her visit to Swift County and her recommendations. She will hold a virtual presentation at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 16. The link will be posted by Swift County Development.