The product of a nine-month community visioning process in Mitchell has been released, as the Forward 2040 finalized report was made available this week.
The report comes after two surveys, several think-tanks, workshops and community engagement sessions, which were led by the consulting firm Future IQ. The Mitchell City Council approved Future IQ in January to lead the community in a $66,500 planning process aimed at engaging community members to develop a plan for the city’s future.
For City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein, the Forward 2040 process did just that. Compiling the results of the near 2,500 survey respondents and talking points from community members, business leaders and education leaders, Ellwein said it helped the city identify key goals and trends to position Mitchell for the future.
“I like that anyone who wanted to participate had an opportunity to, and having the entire community moving forward with a shared strategic vision is going to be incredibly helpful to position the community moving forward,” Ellwein said.
The strategic pillars identified throughout the Forward 2040 process includes fostering supportive and inclusive community culture, create an educational hot spot emphasizing innovation, position Mitchell as a regional leadership center, strengthen the local agriculture and industry clusters and evolve Mitchell’s recreation, tourism and place-making.
A suggested road map created by Future IQ is provided in the finalized report, which lists a step-by-step timeline of how each strategic pillar can be advanced. For example, the pillar of fostering supportive and inclusive community culture includes a suggested goal of opening the door to new people and new ideas by 2022. Cleaning Lake Mitchell and revitalizing downtown were also areas that were identified for 2022 as a suggested timeline. Diversifying and growing Mitchell's ag and tech sectors was a suggestion for 2030.
Ellwein said the inclusive community culture pillar was considered by participants to be a top priority for the community to begin working on immediately.
“When I was reading through the report, you can see come common themes of community conversations that need to happen regarding inclusiveness and welcoming new ideas,” Ellwein said. “That tells me that our community is ready to see some change in that area, and I’m excited to see that conversation start and take off.”
City Council member Steve Rice was an active participant in the Forward 2040 process, and he emphasized how vital the information that was gained from the process is for the future of Mitchell.
“I want to make sure the city is aware of the information and uses it to provide the type of support and services that will help Mitchell maintain and expand our regional footprint,” Rice said. “Ideas and thoughts from past planning sessions sometimes took years to emerge, and I know there are already ideas formulating in the public on how to leverage this information to push Mitchell forward.”
A topic that stood out to Rice during the process was the challenge of attracting and retaining employees.
To improve employee retention and attract more people to choose Mitchell as a place to live, Rice pointed to the recreation and tourism pillar. Expanding recreational opportunities that provide accessibility and establishing park activities that cater to a diverse group of people is a community action idea the report includes.
“Quality of place is key, and a lot of places have jobs. Why would I want to live here? The 30-and-under age bracket thinks very differently about quality of place than the 65-and-up age bracket,” Rice said, pointing to family activities, outdoor activities, entertainment and good communication versus health care, security and good services as an example of the differences.
According to the report, re-purposing buildings on Mitchell’s Main Street and fostering culturally relevant and intergenerational events such as ‘Arts in the Park,’ are two ideas community members said they would like to see in the future.
Ellwein said the level of engagement in the Forward 2040 process was encouraging, noting the wide age demographic of surveyors and participants. The finalized report states there were 210 high school students who completed the survey.
“Being able to get the youth involved with this process was a big goal, and there are a lot of changes happening with technology and automation,” Ellwein said.
One of the future insights the report provided was ways to consider capitalizing on the educational opportunities the city offers. The report states that 78% of Mitchell High School students go on to post-secondary education, and efforts made to capture the remaining 22% would dramatically help address anticipated workforce shortages as baby boomers begin to retire in significant numbers.
Connecting renewable energy development in and around Mitchell with skills training programs at Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU) and Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI), was also identified for enhancing the community as an educational hotspot.
Recognizing Mitchell as a regional hub is another area Ellwein said the Forward 2040 process helped the city identify. The report also identified health services and telemedicine as another place for growth in Mitchell.
“I think sometimes we forget to recognize that we are a retail hub, event hub and tourism hub, and I thought this helped us starting looking at what we can do to continue growing and leveraging our reach as a hub,” Ellwein said.
Ellwein now has her sights set on putting the plans identified in the Forward 2040 process into action. To begin implementing some of the future goals and keep engaging community discussion, Ellwein said she is in the process of creating a leadership task force.
“That leadership task force can help drive this conversation forward into the future, and it’s not going to be the city trying to achieve these outcomes,” Ellwein said. “We have to take the momentum we’ve gained through this conversation and put it to good use.”