Homegrown Success Stories

Former editor of Utne Reader, Jay Walljasper is a fellow at and editor for the On the Commons,  and author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.

Southwest Initiative Foundation

Bihi’s Shop of African Food

Microloan Recipient

Most afternoons, a shop in downtown Willmar is bustling with people coming in after work or prayers, reaching across the counter for coffee, sharing a meal at a small table and discussing the news airing on the television in the corner. Children run past the storefront, football in hand. This is a scene that shop owner Mohamed Bihi is accustomed to seeing. He grew up working with his father in their family’s grocery store in Somalia before moving to the U.S. about 10 years ago. Mohamed and his wife, Sahro Farah, own and operate Bihi’s Shop of African Food, offering specialty African goods, grocery staples, and goat meat products. Bihi’s Shop opened in 2004, and the Southwest Initiative Foundation was one organization that assisted Mohamed with the process.

Mohamed received financing and business technical assistance through the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s Microenterprise Loan Program, which supports small-business development with loans up to $35,000 and one-on-one technical assistance for bookkeeping, marketing, and other needs. Working with Mohamed was Southwest Initiative Foundation’s first encounter with addressing Reba-free financing to meet the needs of the Muslim community. In Islamic law, charging interest to rent money — a practice called Reba — is prohibited. With Minnesota’s national prominence as a home to African immigrant residents, there is a clear need for businesses that provide goods, services, and gathering places to help everyone feel they are part of a community.

photographer | Nate Howard

In Minnesota’s southwest, the town of Milan defies expectations. For one thing, some of its 300 residents hail from islands in the South Pacific — they settled here through the encouragement of a local son who served in the Peace Corps. The downtown has stayed lively, sporting a bank, a grocery store, a medical clinic, a public library, two cafés, two hair salons, an auto-repair service, a machine shop, an American Legion post, a city hall, a gallery, a craft shop, and a mural showcasing local history. While Milan lost its public school, the building remains at the heart of the community’s aspirations for the future with a business incubator, complete with a commercial kitchen, and ample space for workshops, classes, and public events.

The Milan Movers, a civic improvement group with a broader membership than in most small towns, pushes to make things happen. In 2004, a small community-run foundation was launched to help capitalize worthy projects, such as tree planting, energy conservation, youth programs, and music events. A local branch of the Italy-based Slow Food movement has been formed to celebrate local cuisine. Staff at the Southwest Initiative Foundation note how the innovative work of this network of citizens gives the whole community a sense that Milan can become a “unique little town on the prairie.”

On the other side of the state, as afternoon slides toward evening, downtown Proctor hums to the tune of everyday life: teenagers on their way home from high school stop by a pizza parlor; youngsters race up and down the sidewalks; moms and dads hurry into the pharmacy, bank, or hardware store.

There’s nothing exceptional in this scene except that it’s taking place in a town predicted to shrivel in the face of overwhelming economic and social trends. Close to a major regional center (Duluth), a suburban shopping mall, and big box stores, Proctor (population: 2,800) is also located in a region that has experienced economic and population decline. The best a place like Proctor could hope for, according to the experts, would be to survive as a bedroom community, but without a downtown business district, local schools, and other gathering spots.

So how has Proctor, like Milan, defied all expectations? The answer can be seen this particular evening at the community center, where almost a hundred people of all ages gather for supper and presentations about local volunteer projects. The event is a kickoff for Proctor’s participation in the AGE to age/Communities for All Ages program, funded in part by the Northland Foundation, one of the Minnesota Initiative Foundations. With high school kids helping run the show and retirees dishing up spaghetti, salad, and dessert, you get a sense of people’s deep loyalty to Proctor.

Hoffman (population: 600) in west central Minnesota hasn’t thrown in the towel either, even when hit by the double whammy of seeing its school close and many main street storefronts go empty. The schoolhouse was transformed into a community hub that houses a senior center, public gym, apartments, and small businesses. Galleria, a cooperative of small merchants sharing a Main Street building, sells clothing, household necessities, cosmetics, and crafts. In a similar vein, a medical clinic opened next door with doctors from other towns holding regular office hours. A new farmers market, which offers eat-on-the-spot meals and live music along with produce, has become a favorite local event. A community garden has sprouted.

Residents of Moose Lake (population: 2,500) in northeastern Minnesota are improving their community by creating a farmers market with a handsome picnic pavilion, clearing debris along the Little Moose River to reconnect with the water, building new mountain bike trails, and expanding the local hockey arena into a multiuse community center for people of all ages. These projects arose from the enthusiastic involvement of local volunteers in the KIDS PLUS project (after-school enrichment), the AGE to age program (bringing older citizens and school kids together), and now the Communities For All Ages (multigenerational approach to community well-being) through the Northland Foundation. Seniors have been the “spark plugs” of these efforts, according to Moose Lake’s community education coordinator, Vicki Radzak.

Even towns enjoying enviable gains in population and economic growth are working for a brighter future with help from the Initiative Foundations. In southern Minnesota, Northfield (population: 19,000) wants to make sure its downtown remains vibrant despite competition from big box chain stores. That’s one goal of the weekly Riverwalk Market Fair, which opened in June 2010 to great fanfare. More than 10,000 people strolled the banks of the Cannon River from June to October in search of vegetables, pastry, free-range chickens, flowers, paintings, jewelry, textiles, music, and fun. The lively scene that unfolds every Saturday morning benefits local farmers, artists, and artisans, along with downtown merchants and anyone who enjoys the bustle of street life.

To revitalize communities across the state, the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations help citizens launch projects large and small. Recent examples include construction of the Crookston Sports Center, with three arenas and seating for over 1,200; restoration of a WPA-era park in Pine River; a river cleanup group in Montevideo; a park beautification project in Cloquet; a downtown business incubator in Red Wing; a campaign to strengthen “quality of place” amenities in Bemidji; a history walk in Holdingford; the North House Folk School in Grand Marais; new playground equipment in Balaton; celebrations of indigenous cuisine on the Bois Forte Reservation; business training for artisans in Lanesboro. Yet the most important outcome for these communities is people’s discovery of their own power to tackle problems and create opportunities. Minnesotans’ commitment to their hometowns refutes the conventional wisdom that shifting economic realities mean places like Milan, Proctor, Hoffman, Moose Lake, and others will inevitably dry up.

This is not the first time pundits have forecast disaster for Minnesota communities outside the Rochester–Twin Cities–St. Cloud corridor. In 1986, at the height of the farm crisis and a painful economic slump in the Arrowhead Region, things looked even worse. Many economists around the country were counseling that the best way to help folks in struggling Midwestern towns would be to make it easy for them to move to the Sun Belt, where the jobs were. But The McKnight Foundation saw things differently. It believed that most Minnesota communities possessed the assets needed to thrive, resources that could be tapped through entrepreneurship — leadership training, local asset development, technical assistance, loans, and grants. Thus, the Minnesota Initiative Foundations were born.

The approach was based on two brash ideas — investing in places others had given up on, and empowering local citizens, not experts, to guide the changes. Over the past 25 years, the Minnesota Initiative Foundations’ work in hundreds of communities has helped avoid steep decline and, in many cases, kept them vital places even amid a continuing agricultural crisis, school consolidation, economic globalization, and increasing poverty.

Today’s economy again poses serious challenges to Greater Minnesota, from unemployment to sharp cuts in public services. Yet our communities can now draw on their experience successfully tackling tough problems and their understanding that the most crucial ingredients for a prosperous and fulfilling future are homegrown.

City of Wadena
Initiative Foundation

City of Wadenal

Healthy Communities Partnership Program Participant

For towns like Wadena, the Initiative Foundation’s Healthy Communities Partnership program offers hope for rural revitalization and a strong base of support when disaster strikes. Built around a Northern Pacific Railroad depot that brought newcomers and business opportunities to the region in the late 1800s, Wadena has seen its families and businesses endure many economic challenges. For years, the historic depot stood with other vacant cornerstone buildings as stark reminders of unwanted change. But a team of optimistic and dedicated Healthy Communities volunteers helped bring life to an inspiring story of rural resolve by engineering the restoration of the depot, making main street improvements, and enhancing the town’s art deco streetscape.

Since then, a former JCPenney store has been repurposed as an incubator for more than 40 small businesses, and these days teens serve up coffee and conversation at a youth-managed cybercafé. Even the alleys flaunt vibrant murals depicting scenes of Minnesota’s rich history. In June 2010, disaster struck when a devastating F4 tornado ripped through parts of Wadena, severely damaging residences, the high school, the cemetery, the community center, and other shared spaces. But the stalwart community dug deep again — tapping into its well-tested foundation of spirit, teamwork, and problem solving. With support from the Initiative Foundation, Wadena has thoughtfully planned for relief, rebuilding, and rejuvenation. Wadena will never be the same. But by taking advantage of its strong shared vision and community pride, it will likely be even better.

photographer | Gregory Harp

Lanesboro Local
Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

Lanesboro Local

Start-up Funding Recipient

Lanesboro Local, a nonprofit organization, is making it easier to buy and sell local goods in southeastern Minnesota. Whether it’s locally grown vegetables and fruit, free-range eggs, meat, home-baked bread and rolls, preserves, or other handmade goods, the team members of Lanesboro Local believe in capitalizing on the area’s assets by connecting local sellers with consumers. Lanesboro and other small communities in Fillmore County have very diverse and entrepreneurial populations, and people are motivated to live locally and support one another. (For example, the local Amish community has a strong desire to share the surplus bounty of their farms.) Developed from a $20,000 entrepreneurial town meeting initiative grant from Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), Lanesboro Local has created an online marketplace at that connects growers and producers with consumers.

Planners have also established a brick-and-mortar marketplace, supported by memberships, modest consignment fees, and additional SMIF grants. For years, producers and artisans in and around Lanesboro have connected informally, through farmers markets, local sales, and fairs. Lanesboro Local formalizes this model, making it easier for community members to find and purchase goods and service locally. The project increases entrepreneurship and improves community health, adding to local economic prosperity and strengthening regional businesses — a mission SMIF carries across Fillmore and 19 other southeastern and south central Minnesota counties.

photographer | Nate Howard