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The Importance of Main Streets: Bird Island, Olivia and Willmar FINAL

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This publication was shared by Rick Bonlender, Economic Development Professions of the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission on 1/28/2021. He requested anyone to feel free to use it as a template to write up your own Op-ed and post/circulate in your area.

In the small towns of Bird Island, Olivia, and Willmar, residents are deeply invested in their communities. Many return home to find work and start a family after graduating college, while others choose to stay local after retirement. Meanwhile, civic groups, entrepreneurs and city officials are actively engaged in these communities—each of which depends on central commercial districts as a magnet to bring people together. Whether it’s a local cultural center, treasured coffee shop, or family-owned restaurant, small businesses are at the heart of Bird Island, Olivia, Willmar, and other small towns like them.

Over the past year, these small businesses have been severely tested. Foot traffic is down, funding is scarce and local entrepreneurs are hurting. Yet, throughout the pandemic, Main Street groups have been—and continue to be—a critical lifeline, helping to direct local businesses to grants and other resources, guiding them through COVID-safe operations, and continuing to work toward a long-term vision of economic development for each community’s downtown. These groups leverage the support of the nationwide Main Street America network and the Main Street approach, which empowers communities to transform their economies, leverage local leadership, and improve overall quality of life. Today, Main Street programs like those in Bird Island, Olivia, and Willmar are vital—now more than ever.

In Olivia, for example, the local Main Street group is playing a pivotal role in the effort to find new buyers for Master’s Coffee Shop, which was a downtown staple for decades before it closed for good in December. Master’s is important not only because it is the sole dining option in downtown Olivia, but also for its time-honored role as a beloved community gathering place. While the owners had been trying to sell the business for years, the economic toll of the pandemic was the final straw. With the help of Olivia Main Street, the owners have already found a potential buyer and are in the process of negotiating a deal.

Meanwhile, Willmar’s Main Street group also remains focused on economic development—even as it assists businesses with the pressing concerns of the pandemic, like navigating grant options and applying for funding. Over the past year, Willmar Main Street has continued the downtown assessment it began in 2020, albeit with modifications. Through virtual focus groups with stakeholders, Willmar Main Street is quickly identifying a priority for downtown development: creating more green space. Before the state had even begun to shut down indoor dining last spring, Willmar was already at work creating outdoor seating options on sidewalks and street parking spots. The energy that effort generated continues to inspire their work. Willmar Main Street will begin exploring solutions for a more permanent green space downtown, ideally with a playground and other amenities to attract families.

Long-term planning has also continued in Bird Island, where the Main Street group is working to repurpose a shuttered elementary school that occupies a full city block near the heart of downtown. Along with a devoted group of community members, Bird Island is trying to save the building from demolition, transform part of the property into open space and find local entrepreneurs to occupy the remaining structure. Through that project, Bird Island Main Street built a network of community members who are committed to downtown revitalization—and that group was a critical asset in December, when the town had to pivot its traditional “Olde Fashioned Christmas” celebration, typically held indoors at a local bank. Working with the residents, the city’s cultural center and a family-owned B&B, Bird Island Main Street was able to host the event outdoors on the B&B’s circle driveway.

These examples demonstrate just a few of the ways Bird Island, Olivia, and Willmar Main Street groups serve as a vital support for small businesses and the community—both in response to the pandemic and in ensuring long-term economic development. While Main Street groups provide fundamental assistance to local businesses, these communities are still at risk. Too often, small businesses are overlooked in favor of big-box stores and online retailers that have greater resources at their disposal. Yet the entrepreneurs that make local communities special are also a powerful economic force—employing nearly half the workers in Minnesota.

State and local elected officials are the next—and last—line of defense in protecting Minnesota’s small businesses, the people they employ, and the beloved downtowns they sustain. In future budget negotiations, lawmakers must recognize that recovery depends on Main Street groups and the small businesses they support. Cutting funding for such programs would be a grave mistake, resulting in lost jobs and reductions to state and local revenue. Before, during, and after the pandemic, Main Streets have proven themselves to be an essential partner to downtown businesses—and those small businesses are essential to the recovery of Willmar, Bird Island, Olivia, and other communities like them.


Rick Bonlender, economic development professional, Mid-Minnesota Development Commission; Mark Glesener, director, Bird Island Main Street; Susie Lang, director, Olivia Main Street; and Sarah Swedburg, director, Willmar Main Street