Staying vital and viable has long been a challenge of rural South Dakota communities.
Residents need jobs. Towns need curb appeal. And community leaders need to know from where to seek guidance in efficiently utilizing available resources.
That’s something that the team at the South Dakota State University Extension Community Vitality program are working to achieve through their distribution of learning opportunities, innovative processes and coaching to business owners and leaders in their small towns.
“Our three overarching missions inspire South Dakotans to create vibrant communities,” said Josh Hofer, a field specialist for the SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program who works out of the Mitchell office.
Hofer said the program focuses on three basic areas of community development. That includes creating vibrant places, strengthening businesses and energizing leaders, the fostering of which can help a community thrive and overcome the challenges that come with living in small, rural communities. That can mean working with county commissions or city councils to help form plans of action for civic improvements, or dealing directly with a for-profit business with the basics of small-town commerce.
Like the communities it strives to support, the program has had to adjust to the era of COVID-19. The global pandemic has forced workers around the world out of their offices and into remote work situations, where Zoom calls and teleconferences are more the norm than in-person meetings and face-to-face interaction.
Hofer said the outbreak brought to light the importance of South Dakota Remote Works, a seminar offered on a monthly basis through the program that helps build employee skills that allow them to better work away from the office.
“It takes you through a month of learning the skills and the technical and soft skills of being a remote worker and understanding how to find jobs, how to navigate a technological workplace that I may not be physically present in?” Hofer said. “How do I build professionally to get good jobs?”
This type of training is important for people who may want to live in small communities, yet retain employment with large out-of-state or even international companies. But its immediate value was brought more to light with the onset of the spread of the COVID-19.
“I think with COVID-19, we are seeing now the employment process and remote opportunities that were coming in the next 10 to 20 years. They have been advanced,” Hofer said. “Twenty years ago we wouldn’t have been able to hire Microsoft employees and have them work in a small town. Today it’s rapidly becoming that.”
Other ways they can help strengthen specific business models is through seminars that teach small business basics and the development of local food projects, community gardens or farmers markets. The program helped develop the Dakota Fresh Food Hub, a farmer-owned collective that pools resources to market and distribute our members’ products. It offers consumers the ability to purchase directly from many local farmers with one order via an online marketplace.
“That would serve as an example of where we can act as a connector in ways that can spur forward, interesting things,” Hofer said.
Creating vibrant places, a core goal for the SDSU Extension Community Vitality program, is another important factor in making communities appealing in a way that makes people want to relocate there. Hofer himself draws on his college experience and past work as an organizer for events like the Freeman Chislic Festival to give an example of the kinds of character a community can create to increase its appeal.
Spaces and events that attract people from both inside and outside the community helps make a town more dynamic. With more people now able to work from home in South Dakota, making the community a place to which people are drawn can again increase the value of moving there for prospective new residents.
When it comes to energizing leaders, Hofer said the program wants to reach out to people who may not necessarily serve in traditional leadership roles.
“More than just the leaders at city hall and the development corporation. We want to talk to them for sure, but at the end of the day there are a lot of different kinds of social leaders in our communities,” Hofer said.
Hofer hopes that field specialists with the program will be able to re-engage with those leaders more in the coming year as the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be on the decline and health care workers are distributing vaccines. There is work to be done in keeping small South Dakota communities vital, and they are anxious to get rolling offering help to those who seek it out.
“Admittedly, COVID-19 sabotaged our intentions to get before more boards,” Hofer said. “In the coming months, I’m looking forward to reaching out to those entities, including development corporations, cities and counties.”
South Dakota State Extension Community Vitality program is holding the following upcoming programs:
An online community book read of Population: 485 - Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry. It began March 4 and runs through March 25.
The South Dakota Remote Works seminar. An educational program designed to equip workers with the tools and skills needed to work from home as a remote worker, freelancer or entrepreneur. The next full seminar begins April 5 and runs through May 1.
Energize! Exploring Innovative Rural Communities Conference. The third annual program conference will feature keynote speaker Amanda Brinkman and breakout sessions on subjects including Uptown Revitalization, Funding Community Projects, Community Engagement and Supporting Local Business. The conference is currently scheduled to be held Aug. 11 and 12 in Milbank.
More information can be found at extension.sdstate.edu/community or by calling the Mitchell Regional Extension Center at 605-995-7379.