Mitchell, S.D. — Home of the Brain Gain

[imgbelt img=mitchell+corn+palace+tom+kelly+creative+commons_thumb.jpg]Traditionally known for its Corn Palace, the South Dakota city has invested in high-tech infrastructure and created a new identity based on old strengths of community.


Tom Kelly

The Mitchell Corn Palace sports a new look every year, always hand-crafted with ears of South Dakota corn. This year the corn palace began a year-long remodeling project to modernize its appearance and amenities.

It’s hard to talk about Mitchell, South Dakota, without getting just a little, well, corny. This city of more than 15,200 residents in the state’s south central I-90 corridor boasts a long tradition of using its ears to lure travelers off the highway. Since 1892, Mitchell has been home to the “World’s Only” Mitchell Corn Palace, a large auditorium and cultural center decorated each year with a-maize-ing new corn-based art.

If these puns seem a little tired, Mitchell’s economic outlook should wake you up. While some might only know Mitchell as a tourist trap on the way to Mt. Rushmore, or as the boyhood home of former Senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate George McGovern, this city has quietly reinvented itself as an economic center for technology, marketing and manufacturing. The nation’s leading supplier of rural telecommunication services developed itself right here, and billboards for miles around tout new high-paying jobs in Mitchell.

My family and I passed through Mitchell on our way west this summer. My wife and I were impressed with the city’s growth since we had been there 10 years earlier. The changes include new housing starts and a large technology center. The downtown was busy, traffic brisk and people were pedaling, walking and enjoying the summer sunshine. Then there were the radio ads: ultra-high speed Internet to every home and business for a fraction of what it costs us for satellite Internet back in our rural northern Minnesota home. This little town in the corn had suddenly become a poster child for what many rural places across the country want to be.

So how did this happen? And what can rural cities all over American learn from Mitchell, South Dakota?

Bryan Hisel, executive director of the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, said Mitchell’s success has been a combination of existing local talent and a collective focus on improving quality of life and infrastructure in Mitchell.

“Every community has this opportunity whether they know it or not,” said Hisel. “It comes down to whether the smart people who grew up and live in your community think it’s a good place to live or not.”

If they do, they’ll live here, start businesses, invest in the community and raise families. That’s what happened in Mitchell.

article on the desire of young people to return to rural areas and a piece I wrote for the Blandin Foundation in Northern Minnesota).

“We have really smart people who live in rural America,” said Hisel. “This is a desirable place to grow up, to stay and grow your career and enterprise. If you work on building the community into a quality place to live, that’s the key.

For Mitchell, that has meant a 21st century economy surrounding a castle made of corn, which is being remodeled this year. Next year’s corn palace will be a 21st century spectacle, befitting its modern hometown while still honoring time-honored rural traditions.

Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog and hosts a rural-themed variety program, the Great Northern Radio Show, on Northern Community Radio (