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'If you're not growing, you're dying': Mitchell, rural economic leaders spur small town housing development

In the past year alone, Mitchell's regional economic development leader and rural development corporations have helped bring $3.75 million in new housing to small surrounding Mitchell communities.

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A new home that's being built on the south edge of Parkston is one of several houses that have been built in the surrounding area towns.
Sam Fosness / Mitchell Republic
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PARKSTON, S.D. — Keeping small towns surrounding Mitchell economically prosperous has been David Lambert’s mission over the past decade.

Lambert’s latest efforts to spur economic development in the handful nearby rural communities has been through housing. As the regional development director with the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, Lambert has been working with homebuilders and leaders of surrounding rural towns to kick-start new housing developments.

In the past year alone, Lambert and rural development corporations have helped bring $3.75 million in new housing to small surrounding Mitchell communities.

“Housing developments in small towns take time. It takes creativity and patience,” Lambert said. “Our primary focus has been workforce housing.”

Since the spring, Lambert said there have been 12 new housing units put up in the surrounding rural towns, including Parkston, Corsica, Armour and Tripp. The price range of the dozen new homes is between $200,000 and $250,000.

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To keep the homes within an affordable price tag for the respective areas, contractors have worked with small town development corporations and organizations that secure land for housing. Lambert said state grant funds have been crucial for helping corporations offer contractors a lower cost on the lots to build on.

“Without those dollars, the cost would be about $42,000 per lot. With those dollars, it reduces to about $13,000,” Lambert said.

Jeremy Jensen, a Mitchell-based homebuilder, is among the contractors who has built a handful of homes and twin homes in the area towns. His recent work entailed building single-family homes and twin homes in Corsica and Parkston — two communities that have seen an increased demand.

“David (Lambert) and the development corporations in these towns like Parkston and Corsica are a great model on how to get more housing options to these communities,” Jensen said.

While small towns like Parkston and Armour saw growth in population from 2010 to 2020, according to the latest 2020 U.S. Census, that’s not the case for many rural communities across the country.

According to a new report from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, the number of Americans living in rural towns dropped by 289,000 over the last decade spanning from 2010 to 2020, marking a decline of just under 1 percent. Lambert and rural development corporations are striving to keep the surrounding area towns on an upward trend by bringing more housing options.

“We believe if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Lambert said.

Of the handful of communities Lambert works with, Parkston was one of few area towns that grew in size from 2010 to 2020, adding about 60 people to bring its population to 1,567, according to the latest U.S. Census. Corsica and Tripp, on the other hand, saw slight dips in population from 2010 to 2020. Armour’s population stayed flat over the same 10-year time period.

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The increase of homes put up in the respective towns over the past year, paired with the new soybean processing facility that’s slated to be built on the south edge of Mitchell, has Lambert optimistic that growth is coming to the rural communities south of Mitchell.

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Two new twin homes sit on the south edge of Parkston, which were built with the help of rural economic development leaders.
Sam Fosness / Republic

However, a series of challenges have emerged that could threaten momentum. Rising interest rates, scarcity of land and surging costs of building material are all obstacles that have Lambert’s attention. That’s why state grants and other funding mechanisms are more vital than ever, Lambert said.

“Doing this without grant dollars and low interest loan dollars is next to impossible,” Lambert said.

The city of Mitchell also plays a big role in funding Lambert’s work. Each year, the Mitchell City Council provides subsidy funds for Lambert’s efforts to spur growth in surrounding rural towns. It’s also led to some questions asking why Mitchell should be funding economic development in other communities.

Considering Mitchell serves as a hub for a handful of rural towns like Parkston, Corsica, Armour, White Lake and Tripp, the health of those nearby small towns has an impact on Mitchell’s economy.

Many residents in nearby rural towns rely on Mitchell for shopping and other needs not available in their respective communities, which ultimately helps drive Mitchell’s sales tax revenue.

“We really are a regional hub. The goal is to weave ourselves together and see ourselves as one region. It’s taken 15 years to make that happen, but I think we are starting to see the fruits of those labors,” Lambert said, noting roughly 40% of Mitchell workers reside outside of the city. “Putting a plan together for those communities in our region greatly helps Mitchell.”

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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