We’re starting to look at Todd County, too

In the first post on this blog a few days ago, I mentioned the experimental nature of what Minnesota Public Radio News is trying to do here. For starters, we’re zeroing in on the people and issues of Baldwin Township, and it’s been fun to hear from Baldwin residents both in the comments and via email.

Next week, the Princeton Union-Eagle will start publishing a series of stories by MPR reporter Jennifer Vogel about what Baldwin Township residents are facing as they look to the future. We’ll post that and more material on a separate Baldwin web page within MPRNewsQ. As always, tell us what you think.

At the same time, we’re broadening our view and starting to look at a second community, Todd County, about 100 miles to the northwest.

As in Baldwin Township, residents in Todd County have asked for help from the Initiative Foundation in order to address some concerns, and MPR aims to do reporting and writing that will shed light and make it easier for folks to get engaged.

Just as we did in Baldwin Township, where housing development, planning and a skepticism of government are on front burners, we’ve started by asking what’s on the minds of people in Todd County, tapping MPR’s Public Insight Network.

And we’re getting answers: Jobs topped early responses, but demographic changes are clearly on people’s minds as well.

Nancy Leasman of Long Prairie pointed to the “empty storefronts” in that city and the loss of jobs in the last year at one of the county’s largest employers, RR Donnelley.

“Though the city has built an incubator building with the hopes of attracting new industry, it hasn’t happened, yet,” Leasman wrote to us.

The mayor of Long Prairie (and the owner of the local bowling alley) Don Rasmussen told us that his city has become quite diverse, and poses a challenge to long-time residents.

“About 1/2 of the current Kindergarten class is of Latino descent. We have people from the Island of Palau, Pakistan, India, and other countries as well as a growing Amish community. The European flavor of our city has changed. Citizens do not understand it and have trouble with the immigration.”

Rasmussen also hit on the issue that motivated some in the county to approach the Initiatiave Foundation in the first place, the high proportion of people over 65. The U.S. Census shows that 12 percent of Minnesotans are 65 or older. The rate is 21 percent in Long Prairie and 16 percent in Todd County.

“Our county social services are strapped financially and unfortunately the very old are the last to receive help as a result,” wrote Corrina Brown who works for the county.

We’re planning to ramp up our listening in Todd County in the next few weeks. In the meantime, if you live in Todd County, tell us what you think are issues facing your community.

  • James Lunemann

    I have been activily working to get rural broadband in our area. I garnered some interest and involment from some townships. I am of the stong opinon that the future of our county proserity potential lies in having the Highest quality Broadband that tehnology can offer. The Large phone companies have told me in no uncertain terms they will not invest in rural minnesota. I do know though for a fact that if our elected leadership partnering with the community could achieve this without them. But if we continue to wait for it to come to us we will always be last on the list. Remember..the sqeeky wheel gets te grease and only the proactive communities will get the grease. Broadband technology should rate equal priority to our roads and other infrastructure. for our ability to draw in business and people with the education and jobs that would support that. I am frustrated because our leaders do have the vision I have.

  • Dave Peters
  • Rin Porter

    I believe lack of communication networks among people of the county is a big problem. There are 29,000 people in Todd County, but I think the total circulation of the 4 weekly papers is less than 5,000. There seem to be few ways for people to get local information or talk among themselves about problems facing the county. People avoid participating in important social, economic, and political discussions. Many do not care about issues unless the issues directly affect their farm, town, school, or church. On Feb. 2, only 55 people attended DFL caucuses, out of the entire county. Few attend county board meetings or city council meetings. There is a widespread atmosphere of “Who cares?” about almost everything.

  • Nancy Leasman

    Broadband capabilities have been an issue and may still be for some, depending on what they’re willing to pay for. I’ve gone from using dial up to satellite to wireless. Since I am a writer, photographer and artist, I send lots of images over the internet and needed faster service than dial up. Several years ago, I couldn’t get it where I live, four miles from Long Prairie. I owned a building in Long Prairie and had an office there where I could access wireless service from the equipment in the water tower. When I sold the building and moved my office to my home, I had satellite service installed. It worked ok except when it snowed, rained or was otherwise balky. As soon as wireless was available, via newly installed equipment on a tower closer and able to emit signals over my trees, I switched back to wireless. I edit a magazine (www.cmwomen.com) , maintain an art blog (www.qdpainting.blogspot.com) a business website (www.leatherwoodvinegary.com) and a new arts council website all from my home in rural Todd County. I’m thrilled to be able to do all that right here where I want to live.

    If anyone says they don’t have broadband access, it may be that they’re just not willing to pay for it. Or, they may be in a dead spot and really can’t get it.

  • dennis Schneider

    I think two of the major issues in todd county is, 1, keeping young people in the area. 2. making space available for them to build a home and lives in the community. I will explain these to you. I have been involved in township government for more then 10 years. I have tried very hard to get my community opened up to let people in. By this I mean. There is a thinking in this county that we should maintain farmland. Which I am not a bit against farmland, But to breakit up and let someone move in on a 2 acres spot or 5 acres spot is hard to accomplish. some of our leaders in this county have taken the stance that everyone should move into a town.. Well, not everyone wants to live in town. It is very hard for a young family to come with the money for a home, let alone have to buy 40 acres for it, plus well and sewer. We at Villard township have opened our doors to let many developments in, and we have growth. We have many of our roads tarred and new homes in the area. To get a community to grow you have to let people in, and I think one of the biggest problems is this 1 house per 40. (unless its another family member). To have new business come into an area they also need people.. so the 2 go hand in hand.

  • Amy

    My husband and I both grew up in Todd County – we both graduated from Long Prairie High School (now Long Prairie/Grey Eagle) in the mid-90s. Our families are still living in Todd County and we want to go back to be closer to them – we want our children to grow up close to grandparents and aunts and uncles. For various reasons, we haven’t made the move…lack of jobs (#1); exposure to prejudices; fewer educational opportunities (where we are currently living, the school district offers language immersion programs beginning in elementary school and our two oldest children are in Spanish Immersion); the 1 house per 40 ordinance makes it financially challenging and neither of us want to live in the town; lack of a community center and cultural events; drive a distance to find competitive prices on day to day needs, i.e. groceries. Another element to add to the litany of negatives is where do kids go to do something besides school and besides being in some school sport activity – not all of us are gung-ho about having our children in (over-competitive) school-related sports – we would like our kids to experience activities and events that are outside of such said activities – many cities offer this, as does the one in which we currently reside. Our children are in karate and our family has a YMCA membership which allows for swimming, etc, etc. Most importantly, we want our kids to know that there is more than just sports. If you let it, small town America can be a training ground for close-mindedness – we want our kids to care about the village, but also care about the world – to think globally. We are taking all of these things into consideration regarding a move back, along with all the advantages – family will be close so less daycares; the kids will grow up with strong familial bonds and in this age of uncertainty, that is incredibly important to us; we believe that moving back will allow us more control over our day to day lives — small town America is grounded, centered, community-driven; broadband is available so you can have the best of both worlds – live in the country and be connected globally. What will we ultimately decide? Well, we both feel that family is the most important priority – this far outweighs the negatives I’ve included in my comments. And we both believe in community and we both want to help the community we grew up in – our hearts are in it – and truly, isn’t that the answer? – one person at a time, wanting to be there, wanting to find solutions and wanting to make small town America better – for everyone.

  • Dave Peters

    Amy — What a wonderful articulation of everything that goes into the decision in front of you. There are a million trade-offs, not simply things like competitive grocery prices but the fact that for all the groundedness rural living can provide there are pitfalls there as well.

    You might be interested in some work University of Minnesota researcher Ben Winchester has done on the trend of people moving back to rural areas. He calls it the brain gain.

    Here’s a blog that mentions it, too.

    I’d love to have more of a conversation with you about this as our reporting gets under way in Todd County. Feel free to email or call. I’m at 651-290-1387 or dpeters@mpr.org. At any rate, good luck with your decision.

  • Ben

    I agree with what Amy and everyone else said in these comments. I went to HS with Amy and her husband. I grew up in Long Prairie and hope, some day, to retire there.

    It was an excellent community in which to be raised. There were pros, many that I didn’t appreciate growing up: very little crime, quiet, nurturing environment, and a caring community where everyone knew everyone else. There was, in my opinion, superior education at LPHS. I am on facebook now with many friends from LP and from college. A lot of my friends from LP who did not attend college write better than friends from other parts of the country who did attend. There were high school plays. There was some culture. But most importantly, there was a strong sense of community. It benefitted me well. I moved from Long Prairie after graduating from Saint John’s to Chongqing, China. I essentially went from a community of 3,000 to a community of 20,000,000. When I got there, it was easier for me to connect with people than it was for ESL teachers from larger US cities because unlike them, I subconsciously treated everyone I met as if I expected I’d probably see them again. People raised in small communities possess this distinct advantage: a trusting nature and an honest, openness because we’re all living in the same town. We all go to one of a few churches. Our kids go to the same high school. If I got into a fight with someone, my mom would hear about it from the neighbors before I got home.

    There were cons as well though. If I got into a fight with someone, my mom would hear about it from the neighbors before I got home.

    I think Todd County faces many challenges. The advent of more racial diversity is a big one. I don’t refer to it as cultural diversity because we’ve had that for years. Didn’t Browerville, population 800, once have two Catholic churches? One was for the Polish Catholics and the other for the German Catholics. Maybe I have that wrong, but it proves my point.

    The racial and cultural diversity should be welcomed into our town. It is only a precursor of things to come. The world is globalizing. Todd County needs to find ways to build and keep industries that will grow in the future that includes that global perspective. Probably these industries will require slightly more specialized education and more technological services. It is imperative that small town America find ways to expand into new and different industries to create more economic stability. Through growth, job creation, and at least vertical if not horizontal expansion (higher-paying jobs rather than just more of them), Todd County will brighten its future. More education is imperative. Diversity in the community is vital in a globalizing world. These are not easy issues to resolve, and I do not envy the leaders who are faced with them. But one thing I can say I’m impressed with that I never thought would happen is this: I can stop in at the local Chinese buffet restaurant and have a conversation with a local, LP resident…. In Mandarin. I don’t know who was more surprised, the owner who never thought a kid would grow up in Long Prairie and ultimately learn to speak Chinese, or the kid who grew up in Long Prairie who never thought he’d speak Chinese to a Long Prairie resident.

  • Tim King

    I’ve been enjoying evrybody’s thoughtful comments and wondering how to join the conversation. I know a number of the commentors such as Jim, Nancy, and Rinn. They have all made major and positive contributions to Todd County.

    I don’t know Ben but his comment about racial, not cultural, diversity struck a chord with me. It is a precursor of things to come, he said. It, of course has arrived although there will be more diversity as globalization continues.

    Nancy’s comments about the condition of down town Long Prairie struck a chord also. I’ve been in and around the town for 60 years. I’ve never seen the down town with so many empty store fronts.

    But this is interesting. Two new businesses opened on Main Street in the last year. They are a Mexican Bakery and a Mexican tortilla factory. Combine this with the new Mexican Grocery on the southeast corner of town and we’re seeing a rebirth of small businesses.

    There are, of course, two older Mexican businesses on Main Street.

    So, golobalization has arrived.

    By the way, the school district is now 28% Latino.

    This afternoon I glanced over Todd County Administrator Nathan Burkett’s excellent presentation that he gave to the County Board on Friday. I do Nathan injustice by paraphrasing it too quickly but; he says because of our aging population Todd County, Minnesota, and the USA are in a pickle and headed for worse. Us old folk aren’t very productive but we need losts of services, it seems.

    Nathan suggested no solution. I have a partial one. Actually, it’s the idea of my friend Jose Hernandez. Jose runs the El Portal restaurant in Melrose. Check it out.

    In the early 80s Jose and Ana Rosa were in Chicago illegally from Mexico. Then the great communicator, Ronald Reagan gave them, and many more, amnesty. There was a recession on. The economy needed a boost. Reagan unleashed the economic power of the young energetic young immigrants and the economy was sparked. Jose and Ana Rosa started a business and put kids into college. They came out of the shadows and increased their productivity. Jose said before amnesty there wasn’t much in the stores in his part of Chicago. Within months of amnesty the shelves were full.

    Lets do it again. I know bright youngsters, who excelled in physics, languages, and the arts, who have graduated from high school but can’t go to college. They work undocumented in menial jobs. Lets put them to work. They are waiting.

    The Cato institute says its economiically more sensible to grant amnesty than to build walls. So its not just me and Jose blowing smoke here.

  • Ben

    Wow. This is really great input. I think if the group of people here got together to discuss Todd County’s development, and we were able to bring more opinions into the conversation, we’d be able to address or at least find the best solution for any challenges the county faces.

    I’m very glad MPR decided to post this article on their web site. I’ve learned a lot about my home town. I had no idea the Latino enrollment had reached 28%.

    I completely agree with Tim King’s suggestion that we should not only welcome new arrivals to our county, but we should find ways to facilitate their conversion to American citizens. Diversity and cultural change can be painful, but if welcomed they bring with them a new perspective, a larger voting and consumer base, and new commerce.

    The last time I drove through downtown LP was Christmas, and I saw the same empty store fronts that Tim mentioned. If the town and the country plan to grow and survive we need to accept every single member of the community into the fold, so that together we can focus on the most important issue at hand: the betterment of our community for the sake of our families. We need to work together to create a more prosperous community and avoid the temptation to ignore the really big challenges by focusing on the changes to its overall makeup.

  • Tim King

    Ben. Thanks for your comments. The sad/interesting thing about the 28% number is that it has been increasing during the four or five years we’ve been tracking it while Anglo/white enrollment has been declining as has overall enrollment. We have been seeing 40 to 50% Latino enrollment in kindergarten and first grade. Those kids could/should be the future adults who could provide part of the leadership of our communities.

    Long Prairie is not unique. This is an identical trend to that in Melrose and, presumably, many other small Midwestern towns.

    Check out our bilingual monthly newspaper La Voz Libre. We cover a lot of this stuff in there. You should be able to find a copy at the February issue Medicine Shoppe or Aborrotes Lopez up by the Country Club.


    PS: Obviously, Todd County can’t grant amnesty or create a path to citizenship but the County could endorse a position on immigration reform. It could also create a climate of openess between the races.

  • Nancy

    It’s great to read the comments. Hi Ben! Wow, It’s hard to imagine the little Ben I knew from elementary school and the one who helped me paint a mural for the Todd County Museum speaking fluent Chinese. You model a concept that might be noteworthy: those who travel, particularly to other countries, appreciate their home territory in ways that those who haven’t stepped out of the state can’t. Veterans, immigrants, and those fortunate enough to be able to visit other countries through personal travel see the world in a new way. Ben, Tim, Amy, you’ve all traveled. Do you find yourselves more involved because you’ve witnessed first hand how the rest of the world lives?

  • Ann B

    We could really use diversified businesses. Right now three or four large businesses employ most of the workforce. When one of them slows down or has hiring changes – it really effects the whole community. If we were able to get our broadband internet up and running, we would be able to entice more businesses to locate here. Giving us a larger employer base and more job stability.

  • Ben

    Hi Nancy!

    Yes, I do think traveling can help open one’s mind up to the diversity that exists in the world. It also clearly shows that there is nothing static in the world. I returned to Chongqing in 2008 after a 10-year absence, and found a city twice its former size. While it was changed in many ways, there was still an underlying culture there of openness and a welcoming feeling to the place.

    Living abroad also made me more appreciative of my roots. Coming back to Long Prairie over the summer to visit my parents on a regular basis helped me grow exponentially in my personal and professional development. There was a comfort in being in my home town, where I knew every street and had fallen from my skateboard on most of the cracks on most of the sidewalks.

    But the town is different. Things have changed. The population is no longer 100% white. The Ben Franklin is gone. Other stores are gone. The town looks a little different.

    The culture, though, is still there. Regardless of the heritage and race of its inhabitants, LP will always be a small town with a welcoming heart and familial feeling for those who choose to call it home. That is the culture of a small town, and without that welcoming feeling a small town loses its sould and crumbles. I feel very strongly about this.

    I also agree with what Ann B said about the few industries that keep the majority of our town employed. LP needs to find ways to bring in more industry. The town needs more industry in growing sectors. Maybe LP could try to form a sister-city association with a small community in Mexico and find ways to work together.

    All of this will be easier with broadband, with whatever high-tech enhancements can be implemented to make doing business in a remote location easier.

  • mary h

    One thing I would really like to see is more involvement in our community of the people that are born and raised here. I have attended different meetings around the areas and am really surprised to find out that the people that are most passionate about changing things, or making things happen, were not born and raised here. I would like to see some community pride. If you are wondering why things are not happening in your community – GET INVOLVED – attend meetings, join a group, start a group. It only takes one person in motion to get a movement started! If you think things are so bad – feel free to do something to make it better.