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Note: Our Vital Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.

Christy Kallevig: Hello my name is Christy Kallevig, and I am an Extension Educator with University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality. In today's episode of Vital Connections on Air we're doing something a little different. It's a follow up to a previous episode. We are chatting again with Judy Hulterstrum and David Krueger who were part of the Make It Litchfield Project. So I would invite you to stop and listen to Vital Connections on their Episode Two Make It Litchfield. If you haven't already, [listen], and then join us back for this episode to hear what happened when they held community meetings to make plans for the next steps.

Welcome to Vital Connections on Air, the podcast brought to you by University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality that explores the trends and topics important to communities and leaders throughout Minnesota. My name is Christy Kallevig, and I'm an Extension Educator with the University of Minnesota Extension. Today, I am joined by Judy Hulterstrum, the Executive Director of Litchfield's Area Chamber of Commerce and David Krueger, the Executive Director of Meeker County Development Corporation, as we get a follow up on the Make It Litchfield Project. Welcome back to Vital Connections on Air.

Judy Hulterstrum: Thank you

David Krueger: Thank you

Christy Kallevig: So tell us. You brought everybody back together when you were finished with your study circles, your small group conversations. What did that large gathering look like and how many people did you have join you?

Judy Hulterstrum: I can begin, I guess. We had approximately 60–70 people who attended our Action Forum. What really came out of that was talking about what each study circle came up with as far as a marketing idea and techniques to achieve that marketing process that they thought they would like to see happen within our community. And I thought it was a real lively conversation. We came up with many great ideas. We had a couple different times where they could use the sticky dots and do their voting, which I think was wonderful because it showed some involvement by the participants that were there.

Christy Kallevig: So when you talk about using their sticky dots and voting, what exactly were people looking at and having the opportunity to give feedback on.

Judy Hulterstrum: Okay, all right. And Dave has all of this information as well because we compiled it into some data here. Each one of the study group facilitators went through and gave their marketing ideas. Some of them were ideas such as creating a mini regional center. Some of them talked about the kind of tag lines like "Invest in Litchfield, Invest in yourself." A water park that has been a major topic in Litchfield over the past probably 10–12 years and now it really has a surge in talking about it and I think that is due to our study circles and the Action Forum. In fact, the REC Wellness Center came up with the most dots on their sheet of paper and some talked about different marketing ideas, small town/big opportunities. You know "Litchfield, where families thrive, a place for kids to grow and learn." You know we looked a lot at our lake. Dave, you can talk a little bit about that economic side of growing business and the senior population.

David Krueger: I think [the] industrial park came up, revitalizing our downtown, you know looking at lots of different economic development type issues all in the future. I think one thing to point out about this process is that there's certainly some overlap between strictly marketing and community and then looking at more stringent visioning about projects in your community. I think that we dealt with some of this, so we don't have a rec center at this time. However, what came out of this was that's what we're going to be working on now. That's not ready to be marketed, exactly, but someday it will be.

So I think it's interesting that you know some people saw as strictly marketing other saw it as projects. And so the merging of those two and then taking those and creating some type of a system change the view of the world about how we're going to get these things a) marketed and 2) actually on the ground marketing is interesting I didn't realize it was going to be a strategic visioning process about things we may do too. So I think that's sort of a bonus that came out of that. One thing that Judy had talked about briefly was seniors. So we're looking at senior living, senior housing and something that Ben Winchester is working on now is senior economies. So we're going to be looking at the impact of senior economies on local rural communities and what we can do to retain that, to invest in it, and enhance those senior communities since those dollars come in transfer payments. We know that that's a huge economic impact to our communities.

Christy Kallevig: It's not something that wasn't necessarily just about bringing new people in but about keeping folks there that are there.

David Krueger: Absolutely.

Judy Hulterstrum: It's looking at the amenities that we currently have and do they focus on all ages of individuals. And then if there are things that we are missing in our community, then how can we move forward with that. You know again, the rec center is a perfect example because the committee that is working on this is looking at not just one age group of people it's for seniors, it's for all year round, it's for the young, and bringing the schools in because our school is in need of a different swimming pool. For it to be a competitive swimming school district, they need to upgrade their pool. So I think what's going to happen is it's going to be a real good collaboration of all entities in our community and I think that's one of the things I found through this study circles and the Action Forum is just the community connectedness and people coming together to work on projects.

David Krueger: Yeah, absolutely. Yesterday I was at a Southwest Minnesota Blandin conference and one of the things we learned about is all these things in rural communities are interconnected and systematic. And so you know one thing, like a downtown, affects other parts of the city. Or not having daycare can affect how economic development, how other things operate. And so really looking at these problems and marketing strategies in a systematic way, I think we're kind of like, how Judy just said, it's not just one type of person. We're not going to seniors or just workforce, but really how all those operate together and then how do we market in each category but really thinking of the whole.

Christy Kallevig: And so when you talk about the connections not only in how these ideas came together and can really build upon each other, but talk about looking at the people that came together to really make this happen. I know you had a large group of volunteers you really recruited a large number of people to be involved in the process. Do you anticipate those people will continue to be involved as these projects and ideas move forward or are you starting to see a shift in who is energized by what's happening and who is ready to maybe move on to something else?

Judy Hulterstrum: Well, I have a great example for that and that is I just sent out yesterday an email to all of our facilitators asking them now to help me communicate about our newcomers supper. And that is one of the events that came out of the Marketing Hometown America Program. And actually we appreciate the funding source through the University of Minnesota Extension and Ben Winchester's Community Vitality Department. We're going to be having what's called a Newcomer Supper and so it's coming up and we want all people that have moved into this area, say within the three to five-year time frame — maybe we can call them a newcomer — to gather together, to get to know each other, have supper, and we're going to have some prizes. We're going to have the mayor come and talk about what Litchfield is all about. We'll have kind of a little swag bag for them with a Litchfield guide, a business resource guide, and help answer questions. So I sent that out to our facilitators, study circle facilitators, asking them to come and pick up some invites go out now and if there were new people in your groups please invite them to this. You guys come back and help us answer those questions because they're the ones that have probably been in Litchfield for a while and can help these newcomers have a better understanding what our community is about. So that's one example of where we're using those study facilitators to help us now get out and show that word.

David Krueger: I do think there are people that are energized by different things. So I think that our groups are there, and when we need action or mobilization in those areas, they are more than willing to do so. They're not going to back every project obviously. But it does show, like we talked about before this particular newcomer's situation is really about making people feel comfortable in the community and optimize retention over time. And something that is becoming more and more important which is storytelling. So we want to understand where people came from what their thoughts are for what the community and then tell their own story to others. How do you grow communities now, it's really for people to act as your liaison going out there telling, "Hey, Litchfield is a great community, here's what I know about, here's what I love about it, and that's been an emphasis I've been hearing more and more about" is storytelling. In fact, the city of Detroit recently has hired a chief operations person just to tell stories. So it's very important to change your story, to get people to understand your story, and it can make a huge difference in the marketing part of a hometown America.

Christy Kallevig: That's very exciting to hear. And we talked in the first podcast when we heard about all of your work and today when you laid out the expectations for those folks that are involved in this work with you, did you give them the inkling that this was going to be more than just a study circles or was it just something that kind of grew out of the conversations that more and more people wanted to stay involved?

Judy Hulterstrum: I think it probably is a little bit of both. You know when we've talked about it I think we presented to our facilitators that we are not going to just let this be in a book on a shelf. We are going to move things forward. And I think Dave and I both are about that if we're going to be involved in this project, our business entities are going to move forward. We're going to make something happen. So we kind of told them upfront that there are going to be these groups that are going to come out of it, these projects ideas and then I think the study circles took it from there and made the excitement to become a part of this and not let it go. You know, I have continued to receive e-mails from some of the facilitators or people that were involved in the group that said, hey I haven't heard anything lately you know what's happening with such and such, and so I think right now we've created a lot of stir in the community that we need to again pull our groups back together and start prioritizing and start working on more of our projects.

Christy Kallevig: So keeping people informed of how you're moving forward and showing that transparency is important in maintaining trust and keeping people committed. Have you identified the new strategies that you're going to use moving forward to keep up to date on what's happening.

David Krueger: Yeah, I think that particularly is sometimes a struggle and we are working with the Extension on the meal and then looking at a community or county coordinator that can help us develop and keep those things moving. Specifically, as we venture out to other cities in the county and do the same thing. But you know we're looking at a web presence and there is a group that's working on telling the story and telling about Litchfield. Specifically, I think that that will also inform people. We'll have some additional ways and means of talking to people and communicating through social media. We do have our own social media at our own organizations, but I think we need something in a person or two to help us manage and do that more often. But we're getting there. It just takes time to build that infrastructure.

Christy Kallevig: And I know that we at Extension are learning a lot from your experiences there and Litchfield and across Meeker County and are working to strengthen this program. So it's a great opportunity for other communities that look to do the same thing. I'm wondering if you could share with our listeners something that surprised you about the experience and something that as you look back you might feel a little bit differently.

Judy Hulterstrum: One thing that kind of surprised me, and I've talked with Neil and Ben about this is it's kind of the timing of how we did it, and it wasn't wrong or it wasn't right because we were the first group that were doing this. We decided to do our study circles in the wintertime and then in the spring is when we had our Action Forum. Here in Litchfield there are so many things going on in the summertime. We may have lost just a little bit of the momentum in that June and July and August time. So now we're coming back to regroup. Both Neil and Ben have said that's very typical in some communities. Some communities are busier in the winter. Some are busier in the summer. And so you know they said we just need to get our group back together again and start working on it. So I felt like we maybe lost a little bit of momentum but it's not like it's gone because people are still there and now we're bringing things back, we're having the newcomers supper come now this fall, in October, and so it will have a resurge I think of what's happening with our groups.

David Krueger: To build a little on what Judy said, I think I was surprised how many people did participate in, really were involved and then really wanted to get something moving once we did. I would say the lesson learned a little bit for the future for Extension whatnot is to help create that infrastructure on the back end before you start, in a sense, so that when you're done with the study circles and action forum and so forth, you can mobilize those resources faster to keep the energy moving in the community. Kind of like what Judy said, summer came, we're taking a break and whatnot and if we can keep that momentum faster, infrastructure is in place, I think it could be more effective.

Christy Kallevig: Those are great lessons to share. Thank you, anything else that you, as many communities are trying to figure out if this is the right fit for them, is there something that you would stay to help them make that decision to move forward with Making It Litchfield in their community.

Judy Hulterstrum: Even if there's any slight bit of hesitation as to how much China is involved and work involved in it I would still encourage them to do that because you are going to gather a lot of insights and you are going to involve people that probably would normally not be involved in other activities. And so you all of a sudden achieved a database of 150 people. That's for our community and smaller communities would probably be less. But I was just excited to be able to have that database of people that we can now go back to. So I would encourage any community to take the time to do it. Yes it does, it takes a little bit of resources and a little bit of time to do. But I think now Neil and Ben have some good communities that are kind of testing the water as well as ours. And I think they will have more information. And we are more than willing to give any of our pros/cons and ideas to help them have a successful program.

David Krueger: Yeah, I would highly encourage folks to get involved in this. You know a lot of communities we tend to talk a lot and have a lot of conversations. We're moving to the next level and I think this program really helps develop that. One thing I would encourage is working with organizations that are already in your town a little more, so as Lions and Kiwanis so forth, and get them involved a little more and if you have a Blandin cohort or past ones, really involve them since they already know the different levels of things in action steps need to happen. You can utilize those people to help the momentum. I think they will be very well utilized.

Judy Hulterstrum: I agree with that too because what we did is use our Blandin Alum, came through to be most of our study circle facilitators. We had about three additional ones besides those that were in Blandin because we were coming off to a great program that we were excited about. And so I think it was just very healthy for us to be able to have that program happen here in Litchfield. And it's one of our great programs that has been a part of that.

Christy Kallevig: Well I'm so happy that we were able to partner with your community to do this. And thank you for joining me to give this update. It's been great to hear about your progress.

Judy Hulterstrum: Thank you so much.

David Krueger: Thank you.

Christy Kallevig: Thank you again to our guests Judy Hulterstrum and David Krueger for joining us for this follow up episode. You can learn more about what is happening in Litchfield and Meeker County by visiting litch.com and the Meeker County Development Corporation at meekercovebcorp.com. You can also find them on your favorite social media sites. To learn more about University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, visit extension.umn.edu/community where you can learn more about today's topic on our leadership and civic engagement alumni blog. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on new research and resources for communities and those who lead them. Thank you for joining us for this episode of Vital Connections on Air.

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