Milbank: Defining Success From Within

Monday, October 22, 2018

Every community is unique. Each has its own distinct attributes and challenges. That’s why a one size fits all approach to encouraging economic development isn’t effective, particularly in rural areas.

Leaders in Milbank, South Dakota recognize this point. In order to encourage sustainable growth in their small town, they decided to look within. In partnership with the Grant County Development Corporation (GCDC), Milbank launched a campaign to engage citizens in re-envisioning their town.

GCDC Executive Director Bobbie Bohlen points out that taxes and population are the standard measures for whether or not a rural community is successful. She argues that such data doesn’t really tell the whole story. “If you just look just at that data, you might think we’re not doing a good job. But there’s a lot going on here that’s not included in that,” she says.

Milbank and GCDC led a comprehensive, three-year process to solicit public input through surveys and listening sessions. “We wanted people’s voices to be heard. Whether what they had to say was positive or negative, we wanted them to have input,” says Bohlen.

Citizens were encouraged to think about the future of the community. They were asked: “What matters most?” on a range of topics, such as art, schools, health care and workforce.

What matters mostMore than 750 people from the county of 7,300 people participated. The community identified and prioritized issues, developing its own “Milbank Index,” to help determine where to direct resources for major projects as well as how to measure progress.

Involving residents in the process helped them feel more invested. “It gives them ownership of the community, as well as the work involved and the outcomes,” explains Bohlen.

Small groups of volunteers have now been working proactively to improve Grant County. “As we talk to people, they’re volunteering,” says Bohlen. “People are stepping up to take action on issues that matter to them.

Bohlen cites a recent example. Some Milbank residents decided they wanted an outdoor skating rink last year. So they took the initiative to raise the funds and worked to develop one.

Larger goals were identified through the community dialogue as well. As the city works to update infrastructure on Milbank’s main street, residents have requested additional amenities that would improve the area, including green space, benches and light poles. In addition, citizens reached a consensus that the city should build a new elementary school in the near future, rather than renovate the old one.

Improving such aspects of quality of life in the area will benefit current and future residents. Ultimately, Milbank is aiming to attract new residents and bring young people who have moved away for college back to town. Through the "I Believe In Milbank" campaign, the city established a platform for residents to tell their stories — to illustrate that Grant County is a good place to start a business and raise a family.

Whether or not economic and population growth follows, this exercise already succeeded in strengthening community ties and celebrating Milbank’s accomplishments.

Bohlen notes that the Milbank Index is a living document that will continue to require community champions to take responsibility for its successes. “There are small and large opportunities in rural communities, we have to engage everybody,” she says.

Grant County Development Corporation is a member of the South Dakota Prairie Gateway, a portal for economic development information in Eastern Rural Communities of South Dakota.

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