Even Google gets it wrong.
Type an Elko New Market address into the search engine and it will spit out a location name that hasn’t yet updated with the times. Separate ZIP codes mean newscasters sometimes make the same mistake when delivering weather reports. And interstate exit signs direct travelers to two independent towns.
It’s been 10 years since the south metro cities of Elko and New Market merged into one affluent bedroom community, but to most outsiders — and even some longtime residents — they remain divided. An invisible line running down County Road 91 isn’t the only partition between neighbors.
Children attend two different school districts. Separate water towers service each end of the city. And amateur baseball teams named after the former towns keep the rivalry alive.
City leaders have even considered changing the town’s hybrid name to something completely different in an effort to promote unity. That met considerable pushback.
“People don’t want to lose their history,” said City Councilman Josh Berg.
Now, in the midst of a marketing campaign, the growing suburb about 30 miles south of Minneapolis has a chance to forge a new identity: a safe haven for growing families, where residents can afford to build their own homes, send their children to high-quality schools and get to know their neighbors.
Elko New Market’s 10th anniversary celebration earlier this month was yet another opportunity to raise its visibility in the Twin Cities and beyond. Both water towers will eventually be repainted with the city’s revamped logo and newly coined slogan, “Small town culture. Emerging possibilities.” The changes, however small, are meant to foster further integration between the communities, which long took pride in their individual histories.
“We really needed a succinct story,” said Amy Nugent, a local marketing strategist hired to lead the rebranding project. “We needed to identify the selling points of our community in order to position it favorably.”
Nestled along the Interstate 35 corridor, the town of 4,700 lacks a fast-food outlet and a supermarket, but boasts one of the highest median household incomes in the state — about $105,000 per year compared to $68,800 for the seven-county metro, according to 2015 data from the Metropolitan Council. Taxes are low, streets are quiet and crime is practically nonexistent.
As an island surrounded by neighboring New Market Township, the exurban city is slowly annexing land to keep pace with population growth. Or, as Mayor Bob Crawford puts it: “We’re the bug in the middle that’s eating our way out.”
Residents say the structure of the school districts, which largely define social circles, contributes to the lingering schism. Most New Market children attend New Prague schools, while Elko and a small section of New Market are in the much larger Lakeville district.
Crawford says it’s the best of both worlds for parents, who have the choice between two lauded programs. With so few students, it’s unlikely the town will be able to support a district of its own. “We’d be back to a little red schoolhouse,” joked City Councilwoman Kate Timmerman.
Younger generations seem to embrace the city’s merged identity. It’s the old guard that remains rooted in the past, elected officials and residents said.
“In some very well established families, it will forever be Elko and New Market. Forever separate,” said Nugent, the communications specialist. “It’s all they’ve ever known.”
German Catholic farmers settled what would become New Market in the mid-1800s, building a small boom town around the prized Catholic church. It would be more than six decades before Scandinavian Lutherans planted roots along the bustling railroad in nearby Elko.
Business activity trickled off in the 1970s with the railroad’s departure, but Elko retained its namesake Speedway, the sole commercial entertainment outlet in town outside a handful of bars.
Real expansion began in 2000, the year the Census Bureau reported a combined population of 804 for the two cities. Just five years later, that figure had ballooned to 2,811, according to the Met Council.
After flirting with the idea of a merger for two years, Elko and New Market left it to the people to decide the issue in a 2006 special election. Many officials touted the plan as critical to maintaining quality services by doubling resources, while also reducing costs by consolidating city staff. Elko residents had an additional incentive: a nearly 30 percent drop in property taxes, or about $400 on average.
Both arguments seemed to resonate in the fiscally conservative community.
‘Twin Cities of the south’
The March referendum passed 437-85 with little controversy, but attracted just a third of the total eligible voters in both municipalities.
“Most people never expected it to pass, so unfortunately no one voted,” said Jeanne Mahoney, owner of the 120-year-old Old Hotel Market. “They’re still very much two towns,” she said.
In fact, Mike Roach, a hobby farmer, calls Elko New Market the “Twin Cities of the south.”
City administrator Tom Terry remembers it differently. Despite the highly publicized election, a drawn-out process meant many voters thought the merger was a done deal before ballots had ever been cast, he said.
Consolidations among local governments are relatively rare in Minnesota. Fewer than 40 locales have committed to a municipal marriage since 1980, according to a 2012 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. Most never make it to the altar.
A community’s deep-seated affiliation with a place can often lead to cold feet, said Rusty Fifield, the Minneapolis consultant who prepared Elko New Market’s merger study and oversaw other successful unions like Norwood Young America.
“They’re emotionally tied to the name of the community and its history, rather than what’s best” for the common good, said Fifield, who predicted a smoother transition in Elko and New Market.
Although the towns had long worked together — sharing a sewer system, as well as police and fire protection — the merger wasn’t always a smooth journey.
New Market’s final mayor, Jim Friedges, stepped down after 15 years in office because of frustrations that purported savings were overblown. He opted not run for mayor again once the cities merged.
With time, Mayor Crawford believes the majority of residents perceived the value in a combined community. Together, the towns built a water treatment plant, a public works facility and a new police station. On their own, neither city could have accomplished all that, he said.
Yet, holdouts like Friedges remained. “It’s New Market to me,” he said.