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.
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.
Hisel said investments in existing companies and tech infrastructure allowed hometown entrepreneurs to build an international communication software company in Mitchell. That brought more than 500 high-paid software developers and communication professionals to town. From there, the Mitchell Technology Institute formed to advocate for public investment in infrastructure and attracting private enterprise to develop and expand companies. As the Information Age was settling in, changing communities of all stripes, a vibrant tech services industry sprouted in Mitchell, aided by a fiber-to-the-door network faster and more robust that what’s available to most of the nation.
“We have so much bandwidth we don’t even know what to do with it yet,” said Hisel.
In the new book Brain Gain: How Innovative Cities Create Job Growth in an Age of Disruption, authors Robert Bell, John Jung and Louis Zacharilla detail the notion of “brain gain,” a data-based response to the long-held notion that rural areas were doomed to lose their young professionals in the “brain drain.” In essence, the authors of Brain Gain argue that in a rapidly changing and increasingly connected world, rural areas are poised to succeed if they maintain quality of life while welcoming people back from their urban educations and early job experiences.
The book uses several communities as examples of this premise, citing Mitchell as among the best examples of rural renewal. Mitchell isn’t alone, however (see, for example, Savannah Wooten’s Daily Yonder 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 MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts a rural-themed variety program, the Great Northern Radio Show, on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).