Celebrating Region 5
The Region 5 Development Commission (R5DC) harnesses the power of regional collaboration to collectively raise the economic prospects of our region. Below are some of the successful initiatives and projects on our plate.
In the summer of 2009, Scott Lykins and a few of his colleagues from the Eastman School of Music organized some informal classical music concerts in the Brainerd area. They never anticipated their actions would help launch the premiere classical music festival in the Midwest.
Lykins, a cellist who grew up in Brainerd, had returned for the summer with his friends to wait tables and enjoy the area’s lakes. The concerts were a practical way for them to keep up their performance skills before returning to school in the fall.
“We didn’t know if anyone was going to show up to those concerts,” admits Lykins. But each new event drew a larger crowd than the last. The final event of the summer took place at a church in Nisswa and included talented performers from both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra.
“We packed 300 people into that little church. After seeing that and the excitement about classical music, I committed to continuing to organize events,” Lykins says. That was the start of the Lakes Area Music Festival.
Early on, people questioned whether a classical music festival could succeed in Brainerd. But the people behind the concert series always had faith. The Lakes Area Music Festival transitioned into a nonprofit organization with an ambitious vision of becoming a “thriving worldwide hub for classical music and a force for broad and sustained development in central Minnesota.”
Lykins moved back to the area after he completed graduate school, in large part because of the organization’s success. Initially, he served as artistic director and then he took on the role of executive director as well.
“Having a person dedicated full-time, year-round to both of those areas has been a great asset,” Lykins says. “It’s been wonderful to see the growth of the organization and growth of our programs and artistic product.”
The Lakes Area Music Festival just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. The three-week summer schedule featured everything from small ensembles performing chamber music to opera, ballet and a full symphony orchestra concert. There were 166 all-star musicians from top national and international orchestras and opera companies performing.
The nonprofit now organizes concerts year-round. Lykins says he’s proud of the artistic quality and caliber of musicians they’ve been able to attract as well as the size and diversity of their audience. His goal is for the lakes region to become a classical music destination — that more people will start to plan their vacations around the concerts the organization produces.
While many of the festival’s early supporters were retirees with summer homes in the lakes area with season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra or Metropolitan Opera, a portion of the audience is unfamiliar with classical music and has never attended a live opera.
Strong community financial support enables the Lakes Area Music Festival to offer concerts without set ticket prices to ensure accessibility for everyone. “People are welcome to come experience high quality art and donate what they’re able to do,” explains Lykins. “In our first decade, we’ve been uniquely successful at bringing new audiences to classical music.”
Because the uninitiated may be intimidated by classical music, the organization is committed to educational programming. Its outreach includes workshops and performances at a number of nontraditional venues such as public libraries, elder care facilities, the county jail and a center for victims of domestic violence.
Community members have embraced the organization and are invested in its success. In addition to providing monetary support, many host performers in their homes and donate their time to help with events — 300 people volunteer with the festival each summer.
Lykins notes that the level of commitment and ownership from community members has ensured its sustainability. “The community we are in is is what has made it all possible. I don’t think our organization would have been able to thrive if we were just anywhere,” he says.
Category: Baxter, Crow Wing
Rural towns have struggled for years with “brain drain,” the phenomenon where young people move away for college and job opportunities and don’t come back. But lately, some towns are experiencing a return migration of young people attracted by small town quality of life.
They’re bringing their skills, energy and experience back home with them. Some young entrepreneurs are returning to start their own businesses, which provides a nice boost for local economies. A prime example of this is Digital Ink Design & Graphics in Baxter.
Josh Goble grew up in Brainerd and started working for a local company in the sign and graphic design industry right out of high school. “I knew it was what I wanted to do. It’s a job where I’m not working at the same thing every day and I’m passionate about making signs and graphics,” he explains.
After moving to Colorado and working for a sign company there for a few years, Josh and his (now) wife Sara returned to the Brainerd area. He decided to start his own sign, banner and graphics production company.
Along with the help of partner Dan Lundberg, Josh started Digital Ink in 2007. He admits that starting the business was a risk and gives the community credit for supporting the venture.
“I was raised in Brainerd and have lots of friends and family in the area. Word of mouth was huge for us,” Josh says. “We stayed busy with past clients who knew my design style and work ethic.”
Initially, the company rented a building in the Baxter Industrial Park. It established a unique niche in terms of both design and product offerings.
Josh comes from a motorsport background and has friends in the industry, which helped Digital Ink land big name clients such as professional snowmobile racers Tucker Hibbert and Levi LaVallee.The snowmobile graphics the company produced for these nationally-known riders helped enhance its client base and business.
“You can’t really pay for that kind of exposure,” says Josh, noting the company has landed many new projects based on this attention, from motorsports to construction company vans and trailers.
About 5 years ago, Digital Ink grew too big for its leased location. The partners bought a new building in downtown Brainerd. The larger space opened up new opportunities and room for larger projects.
The company also received a North Central Economic Development Association loan to purchase a large format printer, which greatly enhanced its in-house printing capabilities since the company had been outsourcing its large format vinyl printing.
“That piece of equipment was the one thing we needed at the time that upped our game through the roof,” says Josh. “It really helped us tremendously.”
Josh notes that the fact that Digital Ink is a one-stop-shop sets it apart from competitors. If someone is starting a company, for example, it can provide all aspects of branding, from logos to business cards and vehicle graphics. Design and production all happen in-house, which is unique.
Three years ago, Josh bought out his partner. He and Sara now own and run the business themselves, with the help of two additional employees. Digital Ink will increase its service offerings in the near future and add an additional employee as well, according to Josh.
Region 5 has proven to be the perfect place for the Gobles to grow the company, both for business and personal reasons. “We chose Brainerd because we’re from Brainerd and really liked the tight-knit community. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” says Josh.
Category: Cass County
Jason Edens knows from experience what it’s like to struggle to pay energy bills. While studying for a masters degree in environmental studies at Bemidji State University, he couldn’t afford to heat his home.
He reached out to the local energy assistance program with a hopeful idea. If they could provide him with a low interest loan for a solar energy system, he could become self sufficient. But in 1999, such a program didn’t exist.
In what Edens refers to as “serendipity,” he came across a free solar energy system the next day that someone was discarding. He installed it on his house and was able to save so much money that he no longer required energy assistance.
The following year, he founded Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) as a volunteer-based nonprofit on the premise that “choosing clean energy shouldn’t be a luxury for the upper echelon of society.”
RREAL is based in Backus but its impact extends far beyond the small Central Minnesota town. Since its inception, RREAL’s aim has been to tackle energy poverty head-on. Its mission is to make solar energy accessible to communities of all income levels.
Edens points out that the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) costs taxpayers $5 billion a year. “It’s a very important program. But that’s a huge price tag,” he says, noting that in many communities, the assistance doesn’t even reach all of the people who need it, because funding runs out.
At the time RREAL started, Edens says nobody was talking about solar for low income communities. The innovative nonprofit pioneered a new national model for energy assistance. It works with community action agencies, schools and other nonprofits to mitigate poverty and empower people through its programs.
“You can pay someone’s energy bill but you’re not changing the root cause of the problem,” explains Edens.
Since that first installation at Eden’s house, RREAL has gone on to install more than 1,000 systems in low income communities in 11 states and has earned recognition as a leader in the field.
Community Access to Solar Power
A service model distinguishes RREAL from its peers in the solar design/build industry. The primary impetus isn’t to make money. Rather, RREAL’s market rate projects for moderate or upper income level homeowners and for local governments help generate funds so it can continue to work with low income communities.
“We’re focused on impact, and we’re service driven,” explains Edens.
RREAL works with community action agencies through a program called Community Solar for Community Action. The partners work to implement more sustainable solutions to energy assistance by installing solar energy systems for low-income families and communities.
These collaborative efforts include a solar array built in partnership with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. It was the first such project on tribal lands in Minnesota and it’s already generating revenue for the tribe. RREAL is also working on an array with a partner in Little Falls that will benefit disabled veterans.
RREAL also has initiated a number of community solar projects, where people who can’t install their own panels can still benefit from local solar energy generation. With this model, people collaborate to buy into support arrays in their area. Subscribers are then credited for their share of energy generated on utility bills.
Beyond the upper Midwest, RREAL is having a global impact. Through it’s “Skip the Grid” program, it’s bringing solar microgrids to Sub-Saharan Africa where many clinics rely on generators for electricity. Solar energy brings critical infrastructure to these clinics. It will vastly improve the delivery of important healthcare services and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Solar for Schools
Education and outreach are integral to RREAL’s operations. It offers workforce development opportunities in most of the communities it serves. Community members of all ages are invited to participate in projects where they learn how to design, build and install solar energy systems.
Edens started his professional career as a high school teacher and he has an affinity for teaching at-risk youth, often through alternative methods. He found an effective way to integrate experiential learning into the nonprofit with the Solar for Schools initiative.
The program is a collaboration between RREAL and area schools, which was made possible through the support of the Region Five Development Commission (R5DC). Its goal is to reduce energy costs for schools while providing important learning opportunities for students.
Through Solar for Schools, RREAL developed six solar arrays for the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts as well as Central Lakes College campuses in Brainerd and Staples. Students will be enlisted in developing curriculum to support education about solar energy.
The school Edens used to teach at is one of the program’s beneficiaries. He’s excited to see his vision come full circle in this way with this ambitious project.
“One of our mantras is that today’s youth are making tomorrow’s energy choices,” he says. “That’s why we want to work with youth in general to ensure they’re fully aware of the cost and benefits of solar energy.”
Category: Local Businesses, Success Stories, Todd County
When Jose Hernandez and Maria Chavez De Garcia planned to open a Hispanic Market in downtown Long Prairie, they turned to NCEDA in partnership with R5DC to help make their dream a reality.
R5DC Regional Development Planner and Long Prairie community member, Dawn Espe, shares, “Long Prairie has one less vacant store front since the market opened its doors, giving residents culturally diverse downtown dining and shopping options and making it easier for other industries to attract employees, and drawing people to our small town.”
Jose Hernandez’s brothers also work in the business; Euogio (Geo) does the butchering and will also be involved with cooking in the café that they plan to open soon. Javier works in the market, and also has close ties with the Agua Gorda Cooperative.
The brothers are among Long Prairie’s Hispanic immigrant population that has grown from 1 percent of the city’s population in 1990 to one-third of the town’s population today. A two-fold boost to the local economy that comes with both population and economic growth with new Americans, Long Prairie’s Hispanic population is a micro-chasm consistent with national Hispanic growth trends in rural communities.
A local meat processing plant first attracted many people from the community of Agua Gorda in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Many are building businesses alongside their Anglo neighbors, investing in the community. The Agua Gorda Cooperative, a set of Hispanic farmers who started with garden plots at a local church, now owns a 54 - acre parcel of land on the edge of town, in addition to farming 5 certified acres leased from the city.
NCEDA, in partnership with R5DC, continues to provide industry expertise from its private sector led, non-governmental members for community development and lending programs to enhance the quality and vitality of life in Todd, Wadena, Morrison, Crow Wing and Cass counties.
Category: Success Stories, Morrison County, Local Food
R5DC is supporting an economic development opportunity that utilizes culinary art, fuctional and nonfunctional art installations and experiences that intend to make Sprout Growers & Makers Marketplace in Little Falls a destination as well a reflection of the unique cultural diversity of central Minnesota.
Sprout Growers & Makers Marketplace is a newly constructed 20,000 sq ft local food processing facility, cooking demonstration kitchen and indoor winter marketplace for growers and makers, established by a cadre of thinkers over the last 6 years who hosted its grand opening April 1, 2016. Sprout Marketplace offers a unique community engagement setting that creatively engages residents to design projects and intrinsic/social programming at a one-of-a-kind regional space where art/culture/food increase cultural appreciation and offer positive economic impacts.
WHAT WILL THIS EFFORT DELIVER?
Commissioned ART. Project Core Team members (from Sprout, R5DC, The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa, 3 Cheers Hospitality, The Latino Economic Development Corporation and local grower artists with trusted relationships within Amish and Somali grower communities), will continue to meet with culturally diverse communities to prioritize commissioned art that will reside at the Sprout Marketplace to allow for ongoing conversation and appreciation of diverse cultural heritage.
Art demonstrations. In addition to commissioned art from culturally diverse artist, grant funds will support performing artists and artist demonstrations coordinated for general public on open Marketplace dates.
Multi-cultural culinary art demonstration and cooking classes. Core team members engage regional culinary artists/chefs to set cooking demonstrations and cooking classes of heritage recipes, alongside community members.
Business classes. Growers and artists will set forth a schedule of learning opportunities, such as succession planning that increase economic prosperity.
Deployment of a variety of art forms selected to address economic development offer mutually beneficial impacts. Artists partner with local growers at Sprout Marketplace to increase economic benefits and livable wages for both. All activities improve our region’s way of doing business, create an improved ecosystem that collectively provides new experiences for residents to financially prosper, and welcome all resident to participate and learn from each other in ways that inspire future initiatives.
Category: Success Stories
Resilient Voices Guide Implementation through Distributed Leadership and Placemaking
Successful implementation of the Resilient Region plan was due to the deployment of the Distributed Leadership Model (DLM). This model is an advanced version of the traditional “collective impact” community development practice. DLM engages regional Champions with intentional focus on engagement of the community benefactors.
“Through this unique model – we want to maximize a collaborative cohort to improve the economic and environmental vitality and quality of life for all in this region.” -Tim Houle, Administrator, Crow Wing County, Chair Resilient Region Champions.
The use of DLM also allowed R5DC to fulfill the regional values of honoring diversity and commitment to inclusion of “all voices to the table”. For example, we learned that conversation and ideas are richer when artists are brought in during the planning phases versus after all decisions are made. The artist offers creative and innovative perspectives which advance impacts. Because the region is committed to quality of life for all people, R5DC sees value in expanding placemaking efforts.
A new placemaking initiative currently underway is a regional branding project. Thanks to a grant from the National Joint Powers Alliance, R5DC, as well as county economic development practitioners, a consortium of creative thinkers and artists are crafting a regional brand that showcases the five-county area’s assets. The goal of this “virtual placemaking” project is to retain and attract a workforce to the region. Maintaining our rural culture can be done in ways that add to our economic prosperity, thus, maintaining resilience through the DLM in the context of placemaking is a natural progression.
Category: Education, Success Stories, Cass County
Connecting the Trip to School with Safety, Health, Community and Choice
When Karolyn Roebuck became the Grants, Testing and Compliance Coordinator for the Cass Lake-Bena School District (CLBS), she quickly saw a need that the school district had been trying to address for many years – a safer route for students to be able to walk and bike to school. The district serves a high poverty (84%, 2010) student population, with most students bussing to school, and others walking or riding bikes on a narrow trail with little or no shoulder paralleling a busy highway.
“Let’s apply for a planning grant to make sure all connections and needs assessments are done to be able to move forward,” was Karolyn’s recommendation to school administrators, after contacting Tad Erickson, R5DC Regional Planner, to apply for a SRTS Planning Grant. She knew that her goal to sustain a project through this planning process would build capacity through partnerships and working together, resulting in more success. “Everyone made a commitment to see things through, from the school district, to the city, to the Leech Lake Tribe, to the county, and others.”
“It was very critical that R5DC guided us through the process to have a really good plan, giving us the opportunity to get a grant to fund the bike and walking trail,” stated Karolyn, noting that the trail is on schedule for completion by fall, 2017.
“This has led us to work together on other projects,” because “Safe Routes to Schools connects with goals of increasing physical activity in a safe way,” said Karolyn. Chosen as one of four schools in MN for a MN BCBS Health Learning Connection Pilot, now in its third year with a focus on health, physical exercise and learning, administrators already had increased awareness from the SRTS process, and quickly approved extra P.E. and Health classes.
Going through R5DC to develop a sound SRTS plan catalyzed the community, according to Karolyn. “If we can have better opportunities for students, community members, families, it’s exciting. A lot of great people are vested.”
Category: Infrastructure, Success Stories, Todd County
Expanding Broadband Access to the Last Rural Mile
The Resilient Region plan prioritized the need for increased connectivity to adequate, affordable broadband as crucial for retaining and attracting both businesses and residents, improving efficiencies and quality in education and health care, and alleviating problems of workforce shortage. “People are interested in staying and/or moving to the rural communities in the region. This includes millennials staying in their hometowns or moving in for the small-town way of life for themselves and their children, and baby boomers making their lake homes permanent residences. A crucial factor is that they need to have broadband, “echoed Brainerd hometown millennial Staci Headley, R5DC Regional Planner.
Many R5DC's residents live in "last rural mile" communities and farming communities that are "underserved" and “unserved” due to factors that go into making broadband work both technically and economically feasible for those who provide it and those who buy it.
Multiple organizations have supported broadband expansion. The Blandin Foundation supported the Resilient Region’s Virtual Highway Task Force as a Blandin Broadband Community. National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA) regional purchasing alliance cooperative invested over $200,000 in the past years in engineering needed for grant applications and coordination of other activities by the Virtual Highway Task Force, a subgroup within the Resilient Region Connectivity theme area.
With the initial 4.2 million investments (2014 – 2015) from grants R5DC co-wrote with CTC and West Central Telephone Association (WCTA), along with the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development Investment of $3 million, a total of $7.72 million has been invested in the region to expand broadband infrastructure.
Connectivity to the last rural mile initiatives (January, 2016) have expanded broadband high speed access to 891 households, giving residents the ability to connect for telework, telehealth, and online learning, and strengthening broadband infrastructure for future growth. One hundred twenty-two low income families also have improved computer and internet skills.
Category: Baxter, Crow Wing
Restaurants play an integral role in our communities, serving as important gathering places and contributing to the local economy. Every dollar spent in restaurants generates $2 in sales for other industries, according to the National Restaurant Association.
3 Cheers Hospitality is a food, beverage and catering company with a focus on farm-to-fork food. The growing company has a history in the region that originated more than a decade ago with Prairie Bay Grill and Catering in Baxter.
Nick Miller has been with Prairie Bay since it opened in 2004. He served as its general manager until 2015 when he and longtime chef Matt Annand bought the business they had helped to develop. They brought on partner John Poston, who added another establishment, Sherwood Forest in Lake Shore, to the company’s roster.
Since then, the partners have operated in a “small and scrappy” way, which enables them to try different concepts, according to Miller. They’ve added two more eateries, the Mad Hugger Cafe and Iron Range Eatery. In the off-season 3 Cheers employs about 75 people, both full time and part time. During the summer that number swells to more than 100 people.
“We’ve had good growth in our company,” says Miller, who now serves as CFO. “We’re only limited by staffing.”
At Prairie Bay, a new chef was hired in the last couple of years, who put a “fun spin on the menu,” according to Miller. Patrons can choose from an array of items like house smoked brisket or spicy Bombay chicken. The restaurant also supports a robust catering business.
Sherwood Forest is located in a 1920s log lodge on a lake. Miller says the challenge with that concept was to make sure it was inviting and not pretentious. The menu they settled on is diverse and includes everything from sliders and street tacos to baked walleye and filet mignon.
“The building does nine-tenths of the work,” jokes Miller, noting that a good chef and great service add to the restaurant’s draw and have turned Sherwood Forest into a place that locals like to frequent.
The Mad Hugger Cafe provides internal catering and food service at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. A far cry from typical food service, it features a fresh salad bar and rotating daily entrees like lasagna, reuben sandwiches and beef fajitas.
The latest restaurant concept for 3 Cheers is the first they built from the ground up. Miller says the Iron Range Eatery in Crosby has been very well received. “We’ve been growing into Crosby, which is now hitting a huge renaissance. We weren’t the first in, but we weren’t the last in.”
Iron Range Eatery has menu items to please every palate, from tacos to burgers and pasta. Patrons can order a pizza with classic toppings like pepperoni and sausage or be adventurous and try the caramelized pear and gorgonzola pie.
A Community-Minded Company
When asked whether the company operates under a particular philosophy, Miller says it comes down to three big words: community, family and experience.
The business purchases ingredients and supplies locally whenever possible. It also gives back to charities when it can. “Nothing is cooler than helping to build up your own community,” says Miller.
Every second Thursday since 2007, 3 Cheers has hosted a “Happy Hour for a Cause” at its restaurants. It provides food and Cash Wise donates wine for the events. Attendees are asked to make a donation and a different charity gets 100 percent of the proceeds each month. People can enjoy themselves while learning about and supporting nonprofits in the community.
The business is about more than just gaining market share in other ways too. Miller likens the company’s employees to family members.
“We’re big into family. Our team is like family — and we don’t just say that. Our team is important, and we want them to bring their own ideas to the table,” he says, noting they want employees to enjoy coming to work every day.
Miller says the restaurants also aim to deliver unique and fun dining experiences for patrons, whether it’s a wine dinner or the ultimate date night where the chef creates a customized menu for a couple.
The 3 Cheers team is always interested in pushing the envelope, according to Miller, who hints at a new venture that will be starting up this summer. He credits the community for embracing their ventures and contributing to the company’s success.
“We have loyal, great customers that take good care of us and follow us on to the next thing,” he says.
Category: Success Stories, Todd County
Since 1972, the number of women-owned businesses in the U.S. has risen 3,000 percent. It’s an impressive statistic, especially considering the fact that women were required to have a male co-signer to get a loan until 1988.
About a year ago, Lindsey Hirschey followed her dream of becoming a business owner when she took over the Stomping Grounds coffee shop in Staples. She says it took a “leap of faith” to make that transition into entrepreneurism. But her investment and hard work are paying off.
Stomping Grounds has been a fixture in the small town for about 15 years. When Hirschey learned the shop was about to close last summer, she saw an exciting opportunity.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of coffee and always had that as my thing that when I got older I wanted to own my own shop,” explains Hirschey.
Hirschey previously managed Giovanni’s Pizza and enjoys working in the service industry. When her son was a toddler, she took a job with an optical shop in order to have more family-friendly hours. But now that he’s older, she has more flexibility.
Hirschey credits her husband Joel for being incredibly supportive of the venture. He also helps with advertising. Stomping Grounds takes advantage of free advertising through Google and Facebook.
She says the shop has had wonderful community support. It has many regulars and has seen many new customers as well. In the tight-knit community, local businesses refer people to Hirschey’s shop and she does the same for them.
Under its new ownership, the shop has undergone some positive changes. The food menu has expanded to include flatbreads as well as soups in the cooler months. The hours have been extended too.
Stomping Grounds serves four types of fresh brewed coffee each day of the week and two on the weekends. Every few months, it has rotating latte flavors. Some of the shop’s signature drinks have been tested this way with customers.
The shop has three employees. All of them are from Staples or married to people from town, according to Hirschey. She says the spot serves as an important local gathering place for friends, families and community groups.
Eventually, Hirschey says she might like to find a location where they can expand to have a drive-up window. But for now, she’s enjoying all the challenges of being a new business owner.
“Every day I go in there’s something new. I absolutely love it,” she says. “I think to myself, ‘I’m really doing this, I’m living my dream.’”