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Howard development dream nearly buried

HOWARD -- A dream of rural economic revitalization that began 15 years ago is apparently on its last wounded leg.

The Rural Learning Center in Howard has closed its doors and moved out of its building at 109 N. Main St. after suffering foreclosure. Meanwhile, Miner County Commissioner Pat Maroney -- a local businessman and backer of the RLC and its affiliated Maroney Commons, which is across the street and is also closed -- said this week that the RLC as an organization will soon be history.

"The RLC is now working out of a private home, but it's slowly winding down its operations," he said.

Horizon Health Care, which was renting space in the RLC building, will purchase the building with plans to use it as an administration center. The purchase price has not been disclosed.

The sale is nearly the final note in the saga of the Rural Learning Center and Maroney Commons. The commons is a defunct $6.5 million facility with a 24-room hotel, restaurant and fitness center; classrooms intended to be used for community and workforce development training programs; and conference space. It was envisioned as a gathering place for rural development planning, brainstorming and training, based on the supposed success of the RLC in revitalizing Howard and Miner County.

Both the RLC and Maroney Commons have their roots in the 1998 founding of a group known as Miner County Community Revitalization.

In the mid-1990s, facing steep population declines in the county seat of Howard and throughout the county, Howard High School students led by Randy Parry conducted a survey they hoped would influence people to spend more money locally. The effort appeared to succeed, and Parry soon left the school to expand on that effort and lead the newly formed MCCR. It eventually became the Rural Learning Center and birthed Maroney Commons, named for backer Pat Maroney.

Maroney Commons, funded by a broad package of public and private financing, opened in August 2011 and closed one year later. Officials said anticipated revenue from training programs never materialized in sufficient amounts.

Former RLC President Randy Parry, who left the RLC about two and a half years ago, could not recall the cost of construction, but said the RLC building was constructed in 2002. He remains positive about Howard's future.

"There's a lot of work going on, " he said. "Some companies are looking at locations, but nothing has been finalized."

Other leaders in the RLC/Maroney Commons effort included Jim Beddow, former president of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, and Joe Bartmann, who replaced Parry when he left. None is involved with either organization now.

Townspeople in Howard, population 858, are left to figure out what do with the massive, shining, sprawling and empty Maroney Commons.

"It has all been unfortunate and financially difficult," said Pat Maroney.

The closure of Maroney Commons left the Miner County Bank with a $3.2 million note, 90 percent of which was guaranteed by the USDA Rural Development program.

Bank President Kent Thompson said federal confidentiality regulations prevent him from discussing any outstanding balance or the current status of the loan. Thompson did say the loan does not threaten the future of the bank.

About 30 other individuals and organizations also invested money in the failed Maroney Commons venture.

Horizon Health Care Chief Executive Officer John Mengenhausen, 57, who is also Howard's fire chief, said Friday that HHC has agreed to purchase the Rural Learning Center building from Heartland Consumers Power District, of Madison, which acquired the building in a foreclosure action. Staff will be hired to assist rural consumers with the purchase of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

HHC has 35 employees and a $2.5 million annual payroll at the Howard location and a total of about 170 employees as part of a network of 17 rural community health centers.

A Howard native, Mengenhausen said his community's pain is easing after the failed community redevelopment effort that culminated in the opening and closing of Maroney Commons.

People have blamed a loss of population, jobs and a series of financial reverses that included the economic downturn, and the pullout of the Knight & Carver Wind Group, as contributing to the effort's downfall.

Mengenhausen also said the ambitious and expensive design of the 36,000-square-foot Maroney Commons -- which used costly green building design components -- probably should have been toned down. The eco-friendly touches promised savings down the road but were probably not well considered "when you're struggling to pay bills right away," Mengenhausen said.

Mengenhausen, who's involved in Howard Industries, a long-time local development group that predated the RLC, said he and others remain hopeful Maroney Commons will be sold and a business of some kind opened inside it.

Mengenhausen said the RLC building had been used as collateral for a loan. The Heartland Consumers Power District, of Madison, acquired it and other buildings that were pledged as collateral.

Horizon Health Care will purchase the RLC building. Howard Industries is purchasing back its two buildings that were used as collateral, worth about $400,000, over a 10-year period from Heartland. One of the buildings is in town and the other is in the town's industrial park, Mengenhausen said. Both are currently being leased as storage space to PBM Packaging, in Howard.

"It was a risk going in, but that's what Howard Industries is all about -- bringing industry back into the community."

The RLC is in the final process of shedding its assets and items it used as collateral, Mengenhausen said.

"I believe in the end the nonprofit corporation will probably go away, whether it goes through an official bankruptcy or some other action."