Youth-Powered Hopes Drive Howard Ahead

[imgbelt img=maronyturbin320.jpg]A small town in South Dakota has become a model of community planning, thanks to an inspired high school assignment and continued leadership of local youth.

 

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More than 500 people turned out for the dedication of Maroney Commons in Howard, SD, August 2011 — the culmination of over a decade of inclusive community problem-solving and action.

When local high school students make the state playoffs, a small town stands up and cheers. When they stimulate a 40% percent increase in local sales revenue, a town sits down and reconsiders its future.

That’s what happened in Howard, South Dakota (population 858). After nearly 15 years of work, Howard has become a poster child of community resolve. And it all began at the high school, building on an imaginative and intensely practical assignment.

The district set out in 1995 to integrate the schools and a struggling community, boosted with $150,000 from the Program for Rural School and Community Renewal at South Dakota State University (funding provided by the Annenberg Rural Challenge). 

“Dust was blowing down the street,” says Kathy Callies, who volunteered in the project then and now leads Howard’s Rural Learning Center. “Kids were expressing, ‘What’s the point, there’s no future.’”

The town had lost nearly a hundred local businesses between 1960 and 1999.  Farm production was declining. And young people, without prospects, were moving away.

Randy Parry, a basketball coach at Howard High, devised a compelling way to introduce the Future Business Leaders of America class to computational software – and to teach them about the town and themselves. The students began a “community cash flow study,” looking closely at how Howard citizens spent their money. Keeping the town in operation depended, and still depends, on sales receipts.  Says Callies, “We have no income tax. If you’re not a property owner, everything you buy is how you affect your local government.”

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Randy Parry, former high school teacher, led students to examine the economic and social structure of the town.
The students began to examine Howard and surrounding Miner County more critically and to ask painful questions: “Why is it we don’t have infrastructure? Why are the buildings in town empty and why do they stand empty?”

With help from Callies and others, Randy Parry and his students developed a survey that would explain the distress of the local economy.  They discovered that many Howard residents were routinely commuting 30 miles away to shop. They also learned that dollars spent locally circulated within the community, benefitting the whole town.

Justin Palmquist, a fourth generation native of Howard, was a student at the high  school when the project got underway. “They sent a ton of questionnaires out over a year. And there was great turnout filling them out and getting them back in,” Palmquist says. He saw that the student body and, gradually, residents throughout the whole town were drawn in by community self-discovery.

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“Most of the kids were pretty interested in it, seeing what the data was going to say. They were surprised,” says Palmquist. “And it broke up that ho-hum, got people involved.” Palmlquist says that the project came to include many high school faculty members and courses, not Parry’s business class alone. English teacher Mary Stangohr was deeply involved, assigning Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Osha Gray Davidson’s Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto to excite students about both rural and urban realities.

Now the technical director of Horizon Health Care in Howard, Palmquist notes that the study also changed his perspective on local society. “The thing I took away from it was every dollar spent in town changed hands eight times. It really made you understand.” In big cities, displays of personal wealth are accepted, even encouraged, he notes, but in a town like Howard, “you almost buy a cheaper vehicle” so as not to stand out. Often there’s an underlying “animosity,” he says, toward the wealthiest folks in town.

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Maroney Commons has been awarded for its use of clean energy; a wind turbine serves as spire of the building and supplies power too.
It culminated last October with the opening of Maroney Commons. The “green” building downtown includes the Rural Learning Center (outgrowth of Miner County Community Revitalization), a hotel, conference facilities, and offices for a local health care agency, and more —  all solar powered and crowned with a wind turbine and a roof of prairie plants. It’s also where Howard’s young, elderly, and middle-agers gathered to around a piano for Christmas caroling.

Maroney Commons was singled out by the Environmental Protection Agency for its 2011 Smart Growth award. But this is just the latest accolade for Howard. A federal partnership for Sustainable Communities (including EPA, the Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and USDA) also picked Howard as a national model of “sustainability.”

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A repurposed grain bin becomes a skylight in the new hotel within Maroney Commons.
What Callies finds most satisfying is the increased school enrollment: proof that young people are returning and establishing themselves here.

“I was in school during the middle of this revitalization,” Justin Palmquist says. He contends that it “changed my mind on what living in Howard was. Before I thought of my home town as a boring dead end that had no future,” but that outlook changed “to a place where I would hope to raise a family and find a job or make a job.” He’s doing just that. Age 32, he and his wife are raising their four daughters in Howard.

Tami Severson recounts, “It was an amazing experience to learn about the very place you are in and how that relates to everyday life and the future you are facing.” Yet for Severson the bigger lesson was that her future, and the town’s, were not simply unfolding before her eyes.  She had a crucial role to play. Work on the community cash flow study and involvement in the community meetings that followed led her to realize “that you yourself have a majority of the responsibility to choose how you will shape this future.”

“It boils down to choice and options,” says Severson. “We won’t convince all youth graduating from our high school that Miner County is their permanent place in life, but we hope to provide youth with a feeling of community and an ability to come back if they choose to or if the time is right for themselves or their family.”

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