While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.
In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.
HOFFMAN, Minn. — On Muriel Krusemark’s tour of Hoffman, every stop has a story relating to economic ups and downs in small-town Minnesota.
Take the spiffy new medical clinic on Main Street. Three years ago, Krusemark called it the “falling down building.” The town won an $86,500 grant to fix it up. But still, getting the job done would be a stretch.
So Krusemark, the economic development coordinator, recruited inmates from the Douglas County Jail to work under a program that allowed them to work off part of their fines by performing labor in the community.
They worked in the unheated building during a cold snap when temperatures dropped to 20 degrees below zero. So one day Krusemark cooked a hot meal for the inmates: scalloped potatoes and ham, baked beans and poppy-seed-encrusted French bread.
Maybe it was the bitter cold, maybe it was Krusemark’s home cooking. Whatever the reason, the inmates devoured amazing portions of food.
And back in jail, two of them failed the next random drug test. As near as anyone could tell, the culprit was Krusemark’s poppy-seed bread.
Town refuses to die
Krusemark’s stories go on and on. All told, they form the tale of a town where the economy caught the illness that has been terminal to so much of rural America.
But not Hoffman. This town is pulling itself off life support.
New businesses have opened on Main Street, and the health clinic is set to operate three days a week. The town — where you couldn’t buy so much as a paint brush or a screw four years ago — now has a hardware store. An appliance store is well stocked, and the dealer comes to town one day a week. Six new townhouses were built on 8th Street. The athletic field has new dugouts and turf. And a farmers market draws dozens of families to the park on Wednesday nights.
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Indeed, Hoffman actually gained a few residents even while people left the surrounding countryside. Hoffman sits in Grant County, which lost 4.3 percent of its residents during the decade that ended in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, Hoffman’s population grew a bit — to 681 compared with 672 in the year 2000.
This list is far from complete, but you get the idea. Hoffman refuses to die without a fight.
Krusemark insists that other towns could do the same if they set realistic goals. “You can do things that can make your town come alive again,” she said. “But it can’t be what it used to be.”
‘A real catalyst’
Krusemark credits the town’s collective can-do spirit for Hoffman’s turnaround. “It wasn’t just me,” she said again and again.
Ask around town, though, and you hear that she drove the recovery.
“She has been a real catalyst,” said Ed Persons, president of the Hoffman Economic Development Authority. “She introduces the right people to the right people.”
Hoffman — like so many other towns whether they are big or small, rich or poor — needs more people who do not wait for someone else to do the work, who pitch in wherever a hand is needed.
“Muriel does that,” Persons said. “She steps up and says, ‘I’ll do that.’ “
At the new thrift store on Main Street, Paul Johnson said, “Don’t let Muriel sell herself short. … Not much happens around Hoffman that she hasn’t got something to do with.”
At an antique shop taking shape in the back of the new Main Street Galleria, Karen Hoffman said, “If it weren’t for Muriel, none of this would be happening. She is very energetic, and she is into everything. … Muriel has done wonders for this town.”
Krusemark quipped, “I pay them to say those things.”
Small towns, big role
Minnesota is peppered with small towns and cities. Collectively, they are vital to the state’s economy.
Almost half of Minnesota’s businesses are located in rural areas, according to a recent study [PDF] by Kate Searls at Minnesota Rural Partners Inc. Those businesses tended to be smaller than their urban counterparts, to hire fewer people and to pay lower wages.
Still, in 2008, rural commercial enterprises provided 40 percent of the state’s jobs in significant industries such as manufacturing and energy production. It may surprise no one that 81 percent of the agribusiness jobs are in rural Minnesota. But did you know that 54 percent of the state’s education-related jobs and 40 percent of the jobs in biomedicine and life sciences also are outside the metro areas?
Searls’ report outlines the many links between Minnesota’s rural and urban economies. The summary of her findings is that economic losses in rural Minnesota pinch the whole state, including the Twin Cities.
So by extension, those who spur towns like Hoffman keep the whole state moving.
But this is challenging and often frustrating work, where advances do not come in giant strides but rather in tiny steps, if at all.
A lifetime of training
Krusemark, the force behind Hoffman’s turnaround, is the 70-year-old grandmother of 11 children. Like the town itself, she has known hard times. But she has thrown them off, and she insists Hoffman will do the same.
In a sense, she has trained most of her life for the job she holds now.
Krusemark grew up on farms in this central Minnesota region where the western prairie meets the rolling wooded hills and lakes that characterize the state’s eastern reaches. Her childhood marked the last of the days when farming defined America’s heartland — when kids milked cows before boarding a school bus and communities lived by the rhythms of planting and harvesting.
Half of all Minnesotans lived in rural areas back then compared with about one-fourth now. The decline left Hoffman with no school in town and far fewer farmers to drive grain up to the elevator that dominates one end of Main Street.
But Krusemark’s story began before that decline. She graduated from high school in Hoffman in 1958, took a job as a school secretary and got married at age 19.
“I had always wanted to be a teacher, but I never asked my parents for the money to send me to school,” she said.
Krusemark and her husband bought a grocery store in town, which placed her at the hub of commercial activity and community life. Pickup trucks and cars would line Main Street back then, bringing farm families to town to gossip over lunch at one of the three restaurants, see the dentist, drop mail at the post office, negotiate loans at the bank, fill a prescription at the drug store or shop for groceries and school clothes.
Eventually, though, technology and mobility turned against Hoffman. Big farms gobbled up little ones. Families drove 20 miles to shop in Alexandria. Farm kids left for jobs in the Twin Cities.
Krusemark and her husband bucked the trend by selling the grocery store and going back into farming while she also operated a clothing store and a bridal shop.
Then, in the 1980s, the farm crisis hit them and the whole town — hard.
Blame it on that economic crisis, or maybe a midlife crisis. Whatever the reason, Krusemark’s husband left her in 1989. Suddenly, she was the single mother of four kids, two still living at home. And she urgently needed a steady income, something that the shattered rural economy couldn’t promise. So she joined the exodus to the Twin Cities.
Eventually, Krusemark parlayed her grocery-selling experience into a job managing the deli of a Cub Foods store in Shakopee. It was physically strenuous, six-day-a-week work. She loved it.
Coming home to a ghost town
But Hoffman was home. Krusemark built a house there, retired from Cub Foods at age 65, and moved back to town. Initially, she worked part time as a cook at the nursing home. Then, in 2007, she landed the job of economic development director.
“I had always promoted the town just to promote my own businesses,” she said.
It was different this time. The town was a far cry from the bustling farm community she had known as a kid.
She had changed, too.
“If I had not moved away and come back, I may not have known the difference,” Krusemark said. “If I had been sitting here through all of this desperation and decline, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed what was happening.”
Main Street had become a veritable “ghost town,” several residents told me. On many an afternoon, Kay Persons, the administrative assistant at Farmers State Bank, would see almost no cars when she walked the mail up to the post office.
“It was pretty bleak,” Persons said.
Pointing from store front to store front, Persons said, “That was empty … that was empty … that was empty.”
Leading by caring
Krusemark’s leadership strategy began with fostering a sense of community on the basic level of one human being caring for others.
“It is all about community, and you almost have to deal with people one on one to accomplish anything,” she said.
Walk into her office on Main Street, and you see a pile of canned goods and packaged food in one corner.
“If people come here and they are hungry, I always have food to give to them,” she said.
Little things can make a big difference in terms of a caring community. At one of the new community gardens, for example, some of the beds are raised so that residents from the nearby nursing home can tend plants from their wheelchairs.
At the other end of the generational spectrum, the big meeting room in the town hall was piled with donated kids’ clothing and school supplies the week before school started. Families could help themselves with no questions asked.
Lead by listening
One of Krusemark’s first acts on the job was to survey the community. Residents, it turned out, had clear priorities. A hardware store and a health clinic were at the top of their list.
Krusemark also made rounds of the business that had stayed open. At every stop, she asked, “What can I do for you?”
One small manufacturer needed more space. Another was planning to leave town if he didn’t secure the right building. Krusemark didn’t build anything for them. But she connected the business owners with agencies that could help them find and finance what they needed.
Also planning to leave were several retirees who wanted to downsize their homes but couldn’t find what they wanted in town.
It turned out that the city had vacant lots on 8th Street with curbs, gutters and water already installed. But a city covenant had ruled out building townhouses on the lots. That rule was changed and the Economic Development Authority offered a sweet deal on the lots and the assessments. Now, six trim frame homes line the street, and construction is set to start this fall on a seventh.
Beg or borrow money — and steal ideas
Not only was there a story behind every stop on Krusemark’s tour of town. There also was a donor.
The charitable arm of the Minnesota Twins contributed to refurbishing the athletic field, and students from the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris helped shepherd the project.
Almost every foundation in Minnesota seems to have a grant at work somewhere in Hoffman — $86,000 for renovating the health clinic, $10,000 for the community gardens, $5,000 to help needy families pay their bills.
Ed Persons, the Economic Development Authority president, is a retired University of Minnesota professor. And he did much of the grant writing.
But Krusemark quickly learned the magic of leverage. Once a grant was in hand to finance a project, it was easier to recruit volunteer help and local donations.
“If people see things happening, they are more willing to donate,” she said.
Another lesson was that the spirit of progress can be contagious. When time came to replace the playground equipment in the city park, Krusemark passed pictures from the city’s wish list around town. The response was “just unbelievable,” she said.
“I would come to work and find checks for $100 or $200,” she said. “We raised $12,000 in two months.”
Some economic development directors wouldn’t bother with playgrounds. Krusemark sees them as critical components of a vibrant community.
“When you are looking for a community to live in, if you see things for children, that’s an asset,” she said.
Yet another lesson was to borrow — or, to use Krusemark’s term, to “steal” — ideas from other towns. The idea for the Galleria on Main Street came from the town of Wadena, she said. It provides for small-scale vendors who can sell from a kiosk or a corner of a room. That way, entrepreneurs who couldn’t afford a stand-alone store can do business together.
Accepting reality and moving on
The scale of the Galleria signals resignation that Hoffman never again will attract as many stores as it had in its heyday.
“Small towns never will be the way there were long ago,” Krusemark said. “We can never get back to that.”
In her mind, though, that’s no excuse for giving up. Just the opposite. She has inspired Hoffman to think creatively within the confines of its new scale.
Motel 1 is a prime example. The small building on Main Street has been refurbished as a modern and well-appointed motel.
No need to worry about the guy in the next room snoring through paper-thin walls. There is no next room. Motel 1 has just one room.
Tough-minded realism also calls for accepting setbacks. Business has been slow in the new hardware store, partly because the economy is so lousy right now and partly because residents still drive to big-box stores in Alexandria.
There have been other setbacks, too.
“You have got to think of things that will work in a small town,” Krusemark said. “Not everything works.”
Appears on panels, at podiums
By daring to try, and even daring to fail, Krusemark has gained a reputation around rural Minnesota. She frequently is asked to speak for civic groups in other communities. Last year, she appeared on a panel at the Symposium on Small Towns at the U of M in Morris.
After Krusemark outlined Hoffman’s successes and strategies, the moderator concluded, “Every small town needs a Muriel.”