Winds of Change

Author: Paul Higbee '90MCA

Photo by Matt Cashore

Gliding along at 70 miles an hour, it looks nautical: 80 sleek feet of white fiberglass, gently curved for efficient movement. But the only ocean in sight is the Great Plains’ sea of grass, rippling from horizon to horizon. This is a wind blade traveling down a South Dakota highway aboard an open semitrailer, on its way to Texas to produce clean electricity.

While alternative energy is a story in its own right, it’s only part of a bigger story people tell in Howard, South Dakota — a town of a thousand residents where the blade was manufactured. Over beers at Maroney’s Bar on Main Street, or over lattes at a new coffee shop up the block, or even over lunch in the high school cafeteria, they speak of a technology-driven “rural movement.” They describe how small towns can re-invent themselves by doing something no city ever could, by directly involving absolutely everyone who wants a say.

Given that open environment, they add, you never know what unlikely candidate will lead the way. Take Joe Kolbach, who came home to Howard in 1998, 15 years after dropping out of high school and hitching a ride to California.

“Tough kid,” recalls Randy Parry, one of Kolbach’s former teachers. “Defiant. Lots of fights. Petty crimes like driving through people’s flower beds.” Almost no one was sorry to see him go. When he returned, one of the first people he stopped by to see was Parry.

“Remember me?” asked Kolbach.

“How could I forget?” replied Parry with a grin. “Biggest rodent ever to crawl through Howard High School.”

Kolbach knew that Parry, who taught business classes at the school Kolbach had mostly avoided, had an interest in community revitalization and ways to fight rural poverty. The town of Howard and surrounding Miner County needed a transformation. The county had steadily lost population, about two-thirds of it, ever since the 1920 census. The farm crisis of the 1980s hurt, and an argument could be made that Miner County never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Back in 1964, during the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty, one Tom Fletcher of Appalachia made headlines as the face of rural economic desperation. Fletcher lived in a tar-paper shack and tried to feed his family of eight children on a few hundred dollars a year.

That image stuck with Americans but didn’t reflect how poverty typically played out in rural South Dakota. Often families there pulled themselves above the poverty line in terms of income by stringing together two or three low-paying jobs, some with long and costly commutes. Usually the jobs offered no health benefits. That exhausting lifestyle, Parry decided, spelled poverty despite what a tax form might imply.

Kolbach grew up relatively comfortably in Howard. Ironically, considering his misdeeds, his father worked as county sheriff. But Kolbach knew the hardships plenty of his neighbors faced. When he came back and dropped in on Parry, he said he had learned about wind energy in California. Now he wanted to start a company that would maintain and repair wind energy systems, and he wanted to do so in South Dakota. There, he believed, were workers with mechanical abilities honed on farms, workers who were unafraid of new technological challenges.

With Parry as an adviser, Kolbach established Energy Maintenance Service, offering excellent industrial wages and benefits. Workers rehabilitate or totally rebuild wind turbine components, including blades, gear boxes and brakes, sometimes out in the field and high in the air, and sometimes after trucking parts back to Howard. The company quickly won contracts coast to coast. Today, in its 12th year, it has 132 employees nationally, with 24 based in Howard.

Photo by Matt Cashore

What’s more, Knight and Carver, a San Diego-based company that also rehabilitates wind systems and manufactures its own innovative blades, decided working near Kolbach’s operation made sense. In 2007, the company built a 26,000-square-foot plant just across the street from Energy Maintenance Service in the town’s industrial park. In 2009 Airstreams Renewables, another California company, announced that two South Dakota towns, Howard and Gary, would become its Midwest sites for training certified wind energy technicians. The Howard trainees, many projected to be returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, will begin arriving in 2011.

With renewable energy leading the way, 247 jobs were created in Miner County between 2002 and 2008 — an employment boom for the county’s 2,800 residents. Seventy percent of those positions, Parry reports, went to people living in poverty.

Miner County beats rural poverty. Is that the story here? Or, Joe Kolbach saves his hometown? Or, wind energy breathes new life into the heartland? Well, say Howard people, not exactly. Those are good stories, certainly. But something bigger, something national in scope, is playing out here, too.

Even before Kolbach’s return, Miner County people began to see how their community could realistically anticipate a prosperous future if residents were prepared to seize opportunities. Technology lay at the root of it all. Thanks to the Internet, business people could tap national and international markets, provided they had the right businesses. Local schools with small student-teacher ratios, already rated excellent by achievement measures, could only get better with additional online resources and course offerings. Health services would improve, too, with rapidly evolving telemedicine that links patients in real time to specialists anywhere.

So essential is technology in reshaping every aspect of rural life that no one in Howard understands how Hollywood can possibly still embrace the comic notion of small town folk baffled by, or simply disinterested in, that very technology.

“I call it the ‘Green Acres effect,’” says Mike Knutson, referring to the 1960s era TV show about country bumpkins. Knutson writes a blog from Howard about rural revitalization: “There’s a tradition of portraying small towns as living in another time. You can laugh at those kinds of scenes, but at another level they’re disturbing. Every small town gets branded as a place where you can’t be contemporary.”

Daryl Hobbs, former University of Missouri sociologist, sees a much different reality. He predicts that people who haven’t previously considered living in rural communities will begin to do so, “quite simply because they can. Now they can be linked to customers or corporate offices through technology, something no one imagined a few years ago.”

Hobbs believes the nation needs small towns more than it may think, “as sources of diversity at a time when our cities are more and more uniform.” Experience an urban or suburban mall, airport or freeway, and you have a good idea of what those will be like in the next city you visit.

“But,” Hobbs observes, “look how many different versions of rural America you could drive through.” What’s more, Hobbs says, the relationship between America’s cities and its small towns has been backward for a long while. Rural communities should be where we develop innovations in such areas as education, community design, provision for health care and ending poverty. If the innovations work on a small scale, he says, society can find ways to transfer them to bigger populations.

Early on, talk along those lines would have been better received by outsiders looking in than it was by those living in Howard. “When we first discussed Howard’s future in the 1990s,” recalls Parry, “it was a struggle to keep the conversation positive. When a community experiences decades of decline, decline as long as anyone remembers, it’s ugly. People believe that’s the way things will always be. But our kids changed that thinking.”

Those kids’ thinking was shaped in part because they took their literature classes seriously. At Howard High School in the mid-1990s, teacher Mary Strangohr was assigning books themed to the agricultural heartland, from Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle to Osha Gray Davidson’s nonfiction Broken Heartland. Davidson described the 1980s farm crisis and its aftermath, how rural poverty has hurt families and how some unscrupulous outside corporations have preyed on small communities struggling for survival.

“The students thought they were living that book,” says Knutson, the blogger who was a Howard teacher in those years. “Suddenly they could express their emotional attachment to this place, because they were afraid of losing it.”

As young Howard readers got an eye-opening lesson from Broken Heartland, their business teacher stayed awake until 3:30 a.m. one night in 1996, working and reworking computer spreadsheets. Parry knew his students thought Miner County was dying. But he sensed, too, that they would resist the community’s slide to oblivion if they could. The math Parry did in the wee hours told him there was something these teens could do immediately.

Significant changes in business profits and county tax revenues would come about, Parry told students the next day, if Miner County people spent 10 percent more locally instead of taking those dollars across county lines. Students decided to conduct a survey documenting residents’ current spending habits and then to campaign for shopping close to home. They mailed survey forms to every registered voter in the county and followed up by doing something their urban and suburban counterparts couldn’t possibly consider. They phoned everyone. Students asked for cooperation, “because I might want to come back here and live someday,” they explained.

Nobody scripted that line, Parry stresses. “It was,” he says, “the first expression of hope for Miner County’s future anyone had heard in a long, long while.”

Sixty percent of the forms came back, and survey results were published in Howard’s weekly paper. Fourteen years later, people recall studying the data and deciding goods and services were indeed available locally that they routinely bought elsewhere. In 1997 Miner County sales tax revenues increased not by the 10 percent students hoped for but by 41 percent. Each year since, those revenues have topped the preceding year’s, significantly boosting the budget for county services.

“Imagine making that kind of a difference when you’re just 16 or 17 years old,” says Parry. “Of course it did something for their sense of self-worth, and it did something for the community’s sense of self-worth, too. We decided we could save ourselves.”

Parry is a numbers guy. He’s many other things, too: former farm kid who never surrendered his farm work ethic, teacher for two full generations of Howard students, one of South Dakota’s most respected former high school basketball coaches and, briefly, something of a national celebrity in 2005. That’s when he turned the tables on The Wall Street Journal, which sent a writer west to report on the Great Plains’ economic woes. Parry’s unexpected story of hope and growth landed on page one. “I got calls from 34 states,” he remembers. Yes, a numbers guy.

By then Parry had left teaching to direct a nonprofit program called the Rural Learning Center, fighting poverty and creating opportunities in Miner County and also providing outreach to small communities nationally.

Kolbach sold Energy Maintenance Service in 2008 but remains a widely recognized advocate for advancing South Dakota’s wind industry. In Howard he’s active with Parry in the Rural Learning Center’s work and in efforts to improve the community’s airport so it can handle industrial needs. Kolbach’s national contacts were key to his hometown attracting Airstreams Renewables’ certified wind technician training program and in winning the Rural Learning Center a U.S. Department of Energy grant this year to create a distance learning system for the industry.

Parry credits the Northwest Area Foundation of Saint Paul, Minnesota, for believing in the Rural Learning Center’s mission and granting it dollars. Still, vital as that support was, the program leveraged 10 dollars for every foundation dollar. There’s a Parry number that is mind-numbing when you consider the hours and cups of coffee behind it. After the foundation got involved, there were 341 meetings — at the American Legion Hall, school cafeteria and in participants’ living rooms — that aimed at making certain everyone had a say about directions the community might go.

To Parry’s credit, says Kathy Callies, “we had absolute trust that our voices would be heard. I think another way that poverty can be defined is that you feel you have no voice, that your ideas won’t count in the end. So in addition to generating ideas, the meetings very directly attacked an aspect of poverty.”

Callies found herself so impressed by the project that she left a secure out-of-county job to join the fledgling Rural Learning Center staff. She especially liked the assumption that local expertise could lead the way. At all those community meetings it was established that Howard residents hoped to align themselves with new industrial trends, and anything linked to the green movement looked like a good bet. In addition to alternative energy, Howard welcomed a plant that packs certified organic beef.

Videographer Julia Monczunski ’02 has documented Miner County’s revitalization since 2004. She’s impressed by the success there but stresses that other small communities following this lead must go in with eyes wide open. “Much of the work is business negotiation aimed at growing the local economy, and big dollars are on the line,” Monczunski says. “Even with all their planning, Randy [Parry] and his staff are thrown curves sometimes. When that happens they drop everything and work around the clock, literally. That kind of dedication is crucial, but it takes a toll.”

A video Monczunski produced captures perhaps the most important lesson the Rural Learning Center offers other small towns. “Jobs, schools, medical services and housing — fall behind in just one of those areas and everything else you’re trying to do will drag,” says Parry. Jobs won’t attract or retain workers if local schools are poor or if there’s no quality housing. Housing for families can be opened up by building new senior residences, attractive to older people who find themselves with too much space. Whatever else a town does, it needs to keep seniors living there rather than wave goodbye as they retire elsewhere. Their Medicare dollars will keep the pharmacy open and build the best possible clinic.

So far, it appears, the connections are working. Miner County recorded a 50 percent jump in per capita income between 1995 and 2005 and a 17 percent increase in private sector employment. Local voters denied themselves a tax break in 2004 rather than risk an inadequate public school budget.

When it came to committing to quality medical services, Parry had another former Howard High School student, John Mengenhausen, on board immediately. Mengenhausen is CEO of Howard-based Horizon Health Care, sharing not only a philosophy but a Main Street building with the Rural Learning Center. Horizon serves a surrounding rural region nearly the geographic size of New Jersey with 11 full clinics and four dentistry centers (including ones in Howard). Its sliding fee scale is testimony to its belief that poverty should never be a barrier to good health. In addition to in-person services, Horizon handles technology and administration for a telemedicine network reaching 28 small communities in both Dakotas.

“Sometimes organizations in rural communities have an advantage in forming alliances because we’re not seen as competition,” Mengenhausen says. “Horizon, for example, works well with both of South Dakota’s big health care providers. In the thinking of those systems, we’re in areas they don’t want to be because of small population numbers.”

Horizon has plenty of medical profession neighbors up and down a three-block stretch of Howard’s Main Street. There’s another clinic, Avera Saint Joseph. A chiropractic service recently moved to town. Wes Mentele, a Howard High School alumnus from the era of the local shopping survey, brought his physical therapy business from a larger city to Howard, believing the Rural Learning Center’s efforts will mean long-term community prosperity. A busy Main Street pharmacy could have been lost when the owner was ready to retire, but the Rural Learning Center worked with him to find a local buyer.

As for housing, one of the Rural Learning Center’s early successes was retaining an assisted living center for seniors in Howard. Out-of-town corporate owners had decided the facility wasn’t financially viable; now, under local ownership, it operates at near or full capacity. In any field, Parry believes, there’s no substitute for local ownership and leadership. A local for-profit group, Miner Homes, Inc., constructed six duplex units for seniors who seek smaller living space but full independence. The Rural Learning Center bought three existing apartment buildings within easy walking distance of the wind energy plants, refurbished most of the 24 apartments, and made it easy for new workers to become Howard residents rather than commuters.

Parry and his staff have always advocated home ownership as a means for building equity and pulling out of poverty permanently. Since the days in the mid-1990s when residents began believing they could rescue themselves, 98 new homes have been built in Miner County. Additionally, the Rural Learning Center tapped federal Housing and Urban Development resources to rehab five older houses throughout the county, in most cases transforming eyesores into attractive homes on big lots with mature trees.

Jim Beddow, former president of Dakota Wesleyan University, stresses that Parry not only tackles a remarkably wide range of work, but he does so with little room for mistakes. “The margin of error is small in rural communities, compared to a city, because there’s less money for keeping things on track if one project goes wrong,” notes Beddow, who now works half time at the Rural Learning Center.

Lindsey Karlson, 26, understands the intricacies of this work, too. She grew up in Madison, a small town 15 minutes east of Howard. After graduating from college in 2006 with degrees in sociology and economics, she accepted a position at Howard’s Rural Learning Center. Doing so nearly broke her grandmother’s heart — even though grandma lives in Madison and can see Karlson regularly.

“God bless her, but my grandmother wanted the best for me,” Karlson says. “When she grew up, going someplace else, someplace bigger like Chicago or Minneapolis, meant bigger and more important work. What I’ve discovered is that just the opposite is true. I have this incredible opportunity to do creative work, and at a young age was given independence and responsibility. If I’d have gone to a city to climb the corporate ladder, I’d still be on the lowest rungs.”

She has traveled to conferences all across the nation, describing small town renewal. Better yet, for Karlson, are trips to other prairie towns within a couple hundred miles of Howard, where she pulls up a chair and mostly listens as people tell her their aspirations for their hometowns.

Back in Howard, Karlson’s age doesn’t make her an aberration among its Main Street professionals. She points out Wes Mentele, the physical therapist, and Justin Palmquist, Horizon’s telemedicine network administrator, both just a little older than she. Tami Severson, working with Karlson at the Rural Learning Center, heads Miner County’s aggressive housing program at age 29. This past June, Andrew Dold, age 26, was elected Howard mayor.

“If you really want to see a young work force, visit the wind energy companies in the industrial park,” Karlson says. “That’s an industry all about technical savvy, and employees are young, both in management and on the floor.”

Young rural professionals like these are almost never portrayed on TV or in movies. The “Green Acres effect” calls for young characters who are driven to escape rural places if equipped, and stuck there if unequipped. “But maybe those media stereotypes don’t matter as much to my generation as past ones,” Karlson says, “because we make our own media through social networking. If there’s a movement to reconsider rural places, social networking will play a big part as we tell our own stories.”

Not that rural Americans are above misrepresenting their hometowns. “We’ve disparaged our hometowns as much as anyone, complaining that nothing important ever happened there,” says Karlson. “Now we have the tools to be places of opportunity, thanks to technology. But the question is, do we believe it ourselves? Lots of communities do, like Howard, but I’ve visited lots that don’t, too.”

It’s 7 p.m. and Karlson leaves her office, walks across Main, and steps into Howard’s municipal building. Metal chairs clatter as a big portion of Howard’s population seats itself in a meeting room. This is a chance to offer public testimony, before the city council, about a proposed Rural Learning Center building expansion. Parry and staff have come up with pledged dollars to develop conference space for hundreds, as well as on-site lodging and food service. But the new construction would extend into an existing street, permanently closing it. The project has lots of supporters, but there are also people concerned — even angry — about changes in traffic routes and possibly congested downtown parking.

Everybody who wants to talk does so. Those 341 meetings gave them plenty of practice. This meeting runs long and turns a bit sloppy. But if, as Kathy Callies says, poverty means being denied a voice, there is no poverty in this room tonight.

Paul Higbee is a writer-in-residence for South Dakota’s schools through the state’s arts council, and creates educational media at Technology and Innovation in Education, Rapid City.

Photo of windmill and of Al Bruns, a manager with Energy Maintenance Service, by Matt Cashore.