Note: Our Vital Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Christy Kallevig: Welcome to Vital Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by University of Minnesota Extension's Center for Community Vitality that explores trends and topics important to communities and leaders throughout Minnesota. My name is Christy Kallevig, and today we are joined by Judy Hulterstrum, the Executive Director of Litchfield Chamber of Commerce; and David Krueger, the Executive Director of the Meeker Development Corporation. They are here to tell us today about the exciting things happening in Litchfield Minnesota, where they are working to rewrite their community's narrative through the Make It Litchfield Initiative. Thank you both for joining me today.
Judy Hulterstrum: Thank you for having us.
David Krueger: Thank you.
Christy Kallevig: We are talking about community narratives and their value. What has been Litchfield's narrative, and what is the narrative you are working to create?
Judy Hulterstrum: Having grown up here in Litchfield, and then leaving for a short time for educational purposes and a few work experiences, and now coming back, it has been several years, coming back here to Litchfield. What I saw growing up was a thriving downtown community. We came to Litchfield on Thursday nights or Friday nights, whatever the business night was. The entire county would come together and you would visit, you would probably have supper somewhere, there were a lot of activities and things going on. With, of course, the time changes, and how people get together, we look presently at kind of a declining downtown. Of course, we are not going to have the shopping we used to have in Litchfield, but I think there are some ways that we can help make some changes in our community to improve it, and maybe provide more of a welcoming community to some of our newcomers who are coming here. It allows us the opportunity to build Litchfield as a thriving community in a different format than it was probably 40 years ago.
Christy Kallevig: Tell me a little bit about the size of Litchfield, and what your current community looks like when you refer to newcomers. Are you seeing changes to your population?
Judy Hulterstrum: You know, when I was growing up, we always talked about how we had about 5,500 people in our community. Right now, I believe we are at about 6,500. Dave, you are the statistics person in your organization, and so I know you have not been around that entire long, but maybe you could share a little bit about that.
David Krueger: I would certainly say it is between 6,200 and 6,500, somewhere in that range. Of course, people move in and out all the time. I would say it is roughly in that ballpark.
Judy Hulterstrum: And as far as the county goes, I think that has not changed drastically.
David Krueger: We are about 22,500 approximately countywide. We have seen decline, but not any drastic decline, not like something like Lincoln County or somewhere like that. We look at the Southwest Initiative Foundation, the 18 counties. The only county that actually grew in the last decade is Lyon County. So all the other 18 counties have lost population, but that is not to say that the larger cities within those counties have not gained population.
Judy Hulterstrum: But also, one of the issues or concerns that we have been looking at is the declining enrollment in our schools here in Litchfield, particularly, and that has to do with the birth rates. I was even hearing on the radio this morning that the birth rates were down, and that has something to do with that, so I think we need to look at within the Chamber, and economic development, in talking about those newcomers coming. We need to attract new families that will come, and provide the opportunities that they are looking for in a community to stay here, and help our schools.
Christy Kallevig: And it sounds as though you have really taken a proactive approach in identifying what you want to do, and even created a program and are participating in a pilot called Make It Litchfield. Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to becoming involved in that, and what you are hoping to do with that project?
David Krueger: I think some of this really started when Ben Winchester came down and talked about rewriting the rural narrative. It really was Ben who sort of opened the eyes of a lot of people that rural is not as desperate as people seemed to think and the narrative out there that rural has been shrinking and diminishing, when really the population overall has remained very close to the same. In many cases, including Litchfield, lots of jobs have been retained, and modernized, and overall, the income is higher in Litchfield as well in Meeker County, in manufacturing as well as Meeker County, and many other counties around us. So there actually is a higher rate of that in income levels. So I think that after hearing some of this, rewriting that picture that we're not as desperate as some people would like rural to be. We wanted to take a look at how do we really market our community, to get the word out there that we have a lot to offer and we want to compete, and we want to be out there to toot our horn about what's going on in Meeker County as well as Litchfield. So, I think a lot of us started and applied for the Blandin Leadership, the 24 people who went agreed that this is something we should be working on. So we were talking to Neil Linscheid about this program, and we call it, Make It Litchfield, and we want to be part of that. The bricks have already been laid for the path. So we have a group of people from Blandin who will facilitate and take it on, and we actually have started that. I'll let Judy jump in here a little bit:
Judy Hulterstrom: The Marketing Hometown America was presented to the Chamber office [to see] if we would like to be involved. Dave Krueger and [I] work on so many programs together which has beneficial to our county and our city, and so we got together with a couple of individuals, and Ben was there, and Neil was there. They asked us if we would like to take this program, and run with it, and we both said we believed it fits well with the Blandin Program. So we have a steering committee that is working together, there are about six of us on the steering committee, and we together formed our study circles, so we have 15 study circles that are currently meeting. They are in various stages of the game. I know one group has completed all four of the sessions, and that facilitator is willing to take on another one, so that does give us the 15 gross. Some are in session one, and some are up to session three. So its varying stages right now, so my particular group will be meeting for the second time for session two this week, and I think your group meets (Dave interjects "today"). Mine is tomorrow, and I have learned a great deal already, with session one talking about what is your connection to the community. I've been very surprised by the responses of the members of my group, some which have lived in Litchfield all their lives, and they still don't feel connected to the community. Yet some of the people who have been in the community for five or six years, says they have been very connected, because I have done this, and I have done that, and I've gotten involved in different group. So, I think we're going to learn a lot from the Marketing Hometown America Program.
David Krueger: So out of the fifteen groups we have about 130 people involved at this point, and like Judy said, we are in the stage of capturing all that information. We unveiled at the Chamber Business Showcase, and those outcomes will really go to non-profit organizations as well as government, to foster changes focus groups have identified. So there's some real … we get some consensus from the groups, we prioritize and then we hand it off to actionable groups that actually foster change for the future. So I think that's where this is different than other programs that often (unintelligible) and put them back on the shelf. This is action-oriented, and we feel we have the momentum, the grass-roots leadership folks in place, and the passion to finish up what we identified.
Judy Hulterstrum: One thing that reminds me when you said community … this is community-driven. It is not an organization or not executive directors that are driving this whole force of what we want to come out of this, so it is that grass-roots, it is community-driven, and it will be community-led. The executive directors of those organizations that work with it, whether it is the city administrator, Dave, in economic development, or myself, the Chamber, the sheriff's department for safety purposes. It is going to be community driven and community-led.
Christy Kallevig: I know that people listening to us are going to be wondering how did you recruit those 130 people?
Judy Hulterstrum: Well, having been in this community for many years, I kind of came up with a list of about 200 people, whether they were involved in the Chamber of Commerce as chamber members, and some of their employees, Dave came up with a list. Each one of those 15 facilitators could go out and get their own names, so for instance, one person who is a new city council member, she went knocking door to door, and said are you new in the community, you're my neighbor, you're in my district, or you're in my ward. Are you new because I do not even know who you are; would you like to be in this study circle? My group is very eclectic. I have a college student, and I have someone who has lived here all of their lives and is probably about 75 years old. I looked and each of us looked to get a very well-rounded group of people. It is not … like I said before, it is very community-based. It is not just your store owners, your business owners or your executive directors that are in these study circles. So I guess the answer to your question is that we just went out and found these people and asked. I think there is a lot of people that sit back and say, "Well, nobody ever asked me to be a part of this" and so everybody took a chance to go out and asked people to be a part of this. We have also been talking about it on a radio program that we have, it is called Chamber Chat, and it is on Tuesdays. Dave comes once a month to my Chamber Chat. We have literally invited the entire community to be a part of this if they want to be. I have had probably about 20 or so phone calls that come to the Chamber office, asking if they can get in a group. So we feel it has been advertised enough. Plus, going out … just that personal ask.
David Krueger: I think one of those things we also want to do, is to say … you do not know what you don't know. This is where Ben Winchester is talking about the newcomers. It is not necessarily where we are over-focused on them, but it is a group we're interested in knowing more about, because often times, we don't know much about them. So if you want to recruit, you want to retain, and you want those people to stay in the school district and create families, you need to understand them better and their wants and needs and for the community. So, we're really focused on that. I also want to mention just briefly, that none of this could really be possible without the Meeker County Extension Committee; they are the ones that really helped fund some of this and encouraged us to take a look at this. I did not want to leave them out of that conversation. We really do feel, that again, the information will not be collected and then, just dropped. We have enough people on the ground that will help continue to foster and bring these topics up continuously until those that create action can take action can actually get it done.
Christy Kallevig: And so hard has it been for you to stay motivated? It sounds as though you had some great cheerleaders between the Extension Committee, and Ben and Neil have been there to support you along the way. How do you continue to energize yourself as a group to keep doing this very important work?
David Krueger: I think it is somewhat easy right now because Judy and I … this is work we are passionate about, this is our career path. I am hearing from common people about how fired up they are about this, how their voice matters, and there is a real buzz in the community about this, positive, about this program. So that energizes me; and so Judy can also talk about that in a minute, and so it keeps everyone moving forward. Rather than when it had just a few at the table, and then you really don't have that energy coming from the grassroots.
Judy Hulterstrum: I fully agree with all that you said. I think what motivates me the most, is that I just know that this is going to be a great program and it is going to create a better community for the people who live here. I think I am energized by the passion of the people. Just hearing from some of the facilitators having gone through their groups, the things that are coming out of this are coming to the surface. You know that it is going to be addressed, because it's energizing the different service groups. Such as one of the groups I brought up earlier, the sheriff's department, one of the sessions talks about "how does your community stack up?" and we talk about safety. "Do you feel safe in this community?" If people are saying they do not, our sheriff's department and our police department are saying that "I want to know that." So you know it's going to go further, so I think that's what keeps the momentum going up for me. I'm looking forward to my second session, and then I'm looking forward to the next one. I think that is what is motivating me the most is the people who are participating in the group.
David Krueger: You know something is working right when you do not hear complaints, but you hear people creating solutions. I've been around politics a long time, and I've been around community for a long time, and its highly unusual not to hear complaining, but solutions. And in this case, I'm hearing a lot more attitude toward solutions than I'm hearing complaining. That is something that we really need to highlight because I rarely see a program roll out that is positive, positive, positive.
Judy Hulterstrum: Right, and I think most of the people who I have heard talk about this is they know we have a great community, but they want a better community. They want an even better community, and so they feel that passion as well as we do.
Christy Kallevig: And so I'm hearing you're going to be presenting your results at your showcase in May, but it also sounds like there are some other things that are already bubbling up and happening. Can you talk about that at all?
Judy Hulterstrum: Sure. I think when we get through these four sessions, the things that are coming up are reports from some of the facilitators saying, "Well, don't you think we can start working on that right now?" So, we want to caution them too, because we don't want to put the cart before the horse, and so we keep saying we have to follow the process. So I think what was most intriguing to me about this program is there was a clear-cut process in how this program works and it's all laid out for you. It was tried-and-true from the University of Nebraska Extension Service, and it was tried-and-true from North Dakota and South Dakota, and so we're looking at it here from Minnesota. So we can take a look at that. So I'm trying to slow some of them down, and say, "Let's not put the cart before the horse, but that let's put that in our facilitator program. We say, "Let's put that in the parking lot." Let's put it on a sheet of paper that's called the "parking lot" and let's put it there and not lose sight of that program. So let's compile all of this, and keep on that process, that they're all good ideas and examples of things that could be done, so let's write those down but stay on that process, so that when we get to that session four, its creating a marketing plan. So we can take sessions one to three and then put that all together as a marketing plan for Litchfield.
Christy Kallevig: And so if somebody else is listening to this podcast and is thinking, "Wow, this is something we want to do where we live, what is something you have learned that you would pass on to that next community that is starting this process?"
Judy Hulterstrum: That's a good question. I think what Neil has asked us to do is talk about this process and figure out what went well and what needs to be improved on. I think what it is would be, looking at your community, getting a small steering group together to figure out where you want to go with it, and then try to build that social capital of people. I think it helped that Dave and I were at Blandin. If you have gone through a Blandin Leadership Program, I would highly recommend you take a look at this, because that was a stepping stone for us to lead into this program, to have those key leaders in your community. Again, to pick up that process, and to move it forward.
David Krueger: Also having that social capital infrastructure is really important, because you can start a program, but if you don't have enough people to facilitate, and you don't have enough actionable people that can help move the findings later, then it stalls out. So really in having a program, having graduates of Blandin, or a Vision 2040 group, or something along those lines. You have people in place who can help facilitate, help identify, recruit, and actually move those actionable steps later. Then, oftentimes those things end up on the shelf in a three-ring binder. So you really really need to make sure that social capital infrastructure is there, or you build it before you end up in a program like this. That's my opinion about that.
Christy Kallevig: Great insight. Thank you both so much for spending some time with me today, and for sharing your story with all of our listeners. I look forward to checking back in with you when you have put together your report, and find out what the next steps are for Make It Litchfield. Just to kind of wrap up our conversation today, for folks who are listening, why should they come to Litchfield and Meeker County to check out in the next few months?
Judy Hulterstrum: Well, we have a beautiful lake town that has great fishing. We have a couple of businesses downtown that are really thriving. Of course we need some more, but we want you to check out our business community. We have some interesting businesses. We have some thrift stores, we have an antique store, we have a general variety store that is very fun, it has a little shop with it that has some clothing, it has some household goods. It's just a great place to come. Litchfield is a great community that is located close to Minneapolis. It is one of the things Ben Winchester talked about, those three circles. You can live here in Litchfield because it's a great community; then you work in a community that might be within Litchfield or 20–30 mile radius, and we have a lot of great [places] to play within a radius of about 60 miles. Minneapolis is very close by. Willmar, St. Cloud, Hutchinson … we are right in the center of a great regional opportunity for many things.
David Krueger: I think for day trips, there is a lot to do in this county in general. Dassel has a great history center that is unique to go look at. There's different spots, including the world's largest ball of twine in a museum in Darwin, not too far away from Litchfield. Litchfield has "the fort" and that's very interesting. You can look it up online, and it's really kind of a cool thing. Litchfield has a great downtown in the sense that it has very unique buildings, and historical downtown, so there's lots of things in that way. It is a great place just to look at. If you do not know that much about it, or if you're looking for a place to move to, those type of things. The Hog in the Road is a restaurant in Grove City that has been featured on WCCO and other news programs, one of the best restaurants in Minnesota. In some of the very small towns, around Eden Valley and Watkins, there are lots of lakes and campgrounds as well as in Litchfield. There is lots to do, we are an area here where the national waterfowl comes through, so that there's a national designation, so that if you're a bird watcher, it's a migration area. There are just lots of different things to look at and to do, you just have to kind of seek them out a little bit.
Judy Hulterstrum: One of the other things I want to mention, and I would be remiss not to mention it. We have a GRA hall, which if you're a history buff, it's a Civil War museum, and it is one of the very few in the United States. I think there's only three or four of them, and they provide Civil War history all the way up to Meeker County history. It is a great museum. We have a beautiful park downtown, and that is available at any time. We have one of the best (it was on WCCO) playgrounds in Minnesota out by our beautiful Lake Ripley and so we have many different opportunities for families and seniors to come.
Christy Kallevig: And I can attest to the great park you have there by the lake. It is wonderful, so definitely lots of things to check out, and you guys are doing a great job of telling your story already by pointing out all the opportunities that are available. Thank you again so much for joining us, and good luck for the rest of the work around Make It Litchfield.
Christy Kallevig: Thank you again for our guests, Judy Hulterstrum and David Krueger, for sharing their story with us. Take time to learn what is happening with Litchfield and all of the communities in Meeker County by visiting litch.com, L – I – T – C – H . com, and the Meeker County Development Corporation at meekercodevcorp.com. You can also find them at your favorite social media sites.
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