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$6.5 million Howard facility closing

HOWARD -- If you build it, they still might not come.

Barely a year after it opened, the Maroney Commons in Howard is closing its doors.

The $6.5 million facility opened Aug. 19, 2011, with a ceremony and much fanfare, including speeches from U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and several project leaders.

The hard-to-define facility is described on its website as "a place for leaders from small towns to design and build 21st century rural communities." It features a hotel, restaurant and fitness center and contains meeting and classroom space for "business meetings, retreats, wedding receptions, training, reunions and much more."

Kathy Callies, acting president of the Rural Learning Center in Howard, said the Miner County Development Corp., a for-profit corporation created by the Rural Learning Center in 2003, recently voted to cease the Maroney Commons' operations "on the basis of financial circumstances."

She said when the board made its decision, the Maroney Commons was still in good standing with its vendors and lenders.

"What they did was to take a proactive view," Callies said. "They did not see that they could continue to meet obligations like they had in the past. It's not as though vendors or financial organizations came banging on the door."

The facility was funded largely through loans, including a $3.2 million loan from the federal government's USDA Rural Development program, guaranteed through Miner County Bank in Howard.

According to the USDA's website, "Other funding involved with this project includes an economic development loan from Heartland Consumer's Power District. This money was awarded through a USDA Rural Economic Development Loan in the amount of $740,000 and Grant of $300,000. These funds were awarded out of USDA Rural Development's regular funding directed to South Dakota. The federal funding was leveraged with $100,000 from Grow South Dakota's revolving loan fund, $150,000 from Northeast South Dakota Economic Corporation, equity from the Rural Learning Center, and other investors."

The facility is named for donor Pat Maroney, who gave $1 million to the project. Callies said how lenders recoup their loan funds has not yet been determined. "What happens now is kind of up to the lenders," she said. "It's very early and that process can be a long one." In the meantime, Callies said the building is still owned by the lenders who financed it. Maroney Commons, Callies said, is a for-profit business that partnered with the Rural Learning Center, but is its own entity.

"Sometimes they kind of view them (Maroney and RLC) as one thing," she said, but that perception is incorrect.

Rural Learning Center did, however, provide administrative support and some of the early management of the business, Callies said.

The facility includes the Forecast Restaurant and the Windward Inn. The hotel, Callies said, has 24 rooms and a six-classroom space that could be used for training, conferences, or "opened up" to seat up to 300 people.

On the site where the town's old bank was, Callies said the building re-used old materials as well as utilized some of the latest in green technologies.

After demolishing the town's former American Legion, built in the early 1900s, the new building incorporated the former legion's wainscoting, gymnasium floor and other items in its construction.

The facility utilized four kinds of green power, including geothermal, two types of solar - solar panels and photovoltaic cells - and wind.

"It's uncommon to see four sources in one building," Callies said. "The people who chose to stay there were always amazed at the combination of very old, very new. People admired that combination."

She said one of the visions of the building was to "turn a lens" on the innovation that is available in rural areas.

Another, she said, was an attempt to provide people with what they wanted.

"A number of people who were donors participated through a vision of trying to see something in our community, what the community had expressed it needed," Callies said. "It really was a combined design to meet shared needs."

Now that it's closing, Callies said she has fielded mixed reactions from that same community.

"I've had some people say to me 'this is too big a project for a community this size,' and others have sent emails and notes of encouragement," she said.

Howard is a town of 858 residents.

It, along with Miner County as a whole, has experienced some of the most severe population declines in rural South Dakota. Howard's population was as high as 1,325 in 1920 but has decreased with every census since 1960.

The Maroney Commons was one of various efforts with roots in a group formerly called Miner County Community Revitalization, which was hatched as a way to combat the depopulation trend and its accompanying economic consequences.

Callies said people agree the Maroney facility should not go to waste.

"The consensus is 'this building exists, the facility is there,' " Callies said. "I hope at the end of the day it remains the viable community asset they dreamed of."

For Callies, she said that even though the business will be closing its doors quickly, she does not consider it a failed venture.

"It replaced some buildings that needed to come out of there and improved Main Street, and was trying to create a place for itself. I don't think that's changed," she said.

Republic file

In this August 2011 photograph, attendees celebrate the grand opening of Maroney Commons at Howard.