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Gears turn for Mitchell planning effort

With its community planning effort Forward 2040 well underway, Mitchell city leaders are pleased with what they've seen so far. Between various public meetings, an online survey and a community think tank event, nearly 1,000 people have had input...

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With its community planning effort Forward 2040 well underway, Mitchell city leaders are pleased with what they've seen so far.

Between various public meetings, an online survey and a community think tank event, nearly 1,000 people have had input on the city's planning effort to see what the community wants to accomplish in the next 20 years.

Those numbers have climbed more this week. On Thursday, Future IQ - the firm leading the planning effort - met with more than 500 students at Mitchell High School in grades 9-12 to have them weigh in on where they'd like to see the city. Future IQ met with students at Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell Technical Institute, as well.

David Beurle, Future IQ's CEO, has been impressed with the feedback he's seen from young people. That information will be sortable by age, how long they've lived in Mitchell and various sectors of the population.

"We are starting to really reach the young people, and it's hard to not be excited about that, considering what role they have in the future of this community," Beurle said.

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That youth outreach will be balanced with the desires of the rest of the community, and requires critical thinking about the city's strengths and weaknesses heading into the next 20 years.

"I think the difficult part, or maybe not, of the visioning process is we're asking what's good for the long-term health of the community," Beurle said. "That might not always align with your own deep personal preference. That's part of the conversation about how do you set up Mitchell to be as prosperous in 2040 as it is today?"

City Council President Steve Rice said he's happy with the amount of time that Future IQ has spent in Mitchell. He said having residents think critically about the community's long-term future is valuable.

"I don't think it makes everyone comfortable but I don't think that's the point," Rice said. "I hope we get five or six actionable items to investigate. It's not supposed to lead to a problem-solving answer, but it's supposed to lead to a top-six areas where we can improve and implement and make the city more attractive, more economically viable."

More than 850 people have taken the online survey, which will remain available through the city's website for the next few months. The initial round of community engagement meetings wraps up from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the James Valley Community Center. The surveys online and at the public engagement sessions ask slightly different questions.

The goal is for the think tank group to reconvene at the end of the summer, Beurle said, with a final plan to be presented to the Mitchell City Council by October.

"We want as much public participation as possible," Mitchell City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein said. "Hearing the energy that has been created and really looking at what we can do to be a place of the future that's going to be relevant has been great."

Think Tank results show expected, preferred future

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Some results from the Forward 2040 effort are already published. Future IQ's report of the scenario-based think tank event held on March 25 summarized where about 85 invited community members see the city. They met for five hours, playing out different plausible scenarios and looking for positives and consequences on community and economic development in the city.

Participants were split into four groups, which were based on a grid that balanced economic focus and agility on one axis and community perspective on another. They were asked to assess Mitchell's expected future if nothing changed with the community's trajectory, and then projected a future, of where they'd like to see the community in 2040. The scenarios are speculative but represent different possibilities for the next 20 years, Future IQ said.

The expected future built a majority around what was called a "Golden Sunset," a part of the grid that has Mitchell focusing locally and on its traditional strengths, such as agriculture and tourism, but would eventually see automation, corporate farming and a lack of clean water hurt the region, leaving the city less economically diverse and more vulnerable. In the scenario carried out by community members, the forecasted future was that the city "becomes a place that fades away because it remains stuck in the way that things have always been done."

The preferred scenario, called "Future Shared" emphasizes a regional approach but also has the city pursue emerging opportunities. The think tank group viewed that as emphasizing collaboration, new technology and global opportunities, and pivoting the economy toward new businesses in energy and agriculture. Beurle called it a higher-risk but higher-reward approach.

"There was strong alignment among participants that 'Future Shared' represented the preferred future scenario for Mitchell, with a recognition that collaborative actions and an increased global orientation needed to be taken quickly to preempt some of the potential negative impacts of large corporate farming, workforce shortages and close-mindedness," the report said.

The report noted that the "Future Shared" approach will require strong leadership and that Mitchell is positioned well to build on its agricultural roots by embracing technology and leveraging its water resources.

"Participants discussed the need for city leadership to act definitively and quickly to move the city toward the preferred future," the report said. "It was noted that significant background research and study had been done and now was the time to put collective energies into the process of changing direction.

Beurle said Mitchell has enough "regional heft" that it can remain an important player in the future.

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"Communities that tell their own story have the best opportunity to be successful," he said. "Mitchell can do that."

Using some of the initial survey results, Future IQ said data showed that complacency, close-mindedness and a fear of change were cited as the primary threats to Mitchell, based on responses from participants.

"This perspective was predominantly amongst a younger demographic and will be an issue to address in order to align thinking on progress in the community," the report said.

Council member Jeff Smith noted that this is the third community planning effort he's been a part of after Vision 2000 and Focus 2020. He said the primary differences between those and this one include having a professional company involved with leading the effort, and seeking input more broadly with the community. He said he expects that interest-specific committees will form to help execute some of the ideas from the final plan.

"People are going to have an opportunity to raise their hand and they should be able to become involved," Smith said. "That's what I'm hoping that we get a buy-in with actually coming together and bringing some buy-in to the table."

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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