Thirteen years ago, after a career in the military, Joe Morgan came to Northfield for a job interview. When he saw its downtown, he called his wife, Sherry.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he reported. “People are walking outside for no reason!”
Today the weekend markets featuring farmers and artists, and other festivals on downtown’s Bridge Square, bring people right to the flower boxes outside the Morgans’ olive oil and vinegar shop, which opened two Decembers ago.
“We had no idea this was going to work as well as it is,” Joe Morgan said.
The couple credit foot traffic in a strong downtown as well as the presence of St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, which draw parents of students from across the country and the world.
Northfield’s strong vital signs, tied to good marks on schools, parks and economic growth, landed the city in the number 2 spot this summer on the yearly “Top Ten Small Towns” ranking by Livability.com, a website that ranks small and midsize communities for quality of life.
If some debate the validity of rankings like that, others contend that the recognition, fluky as it might feel, can be a boost for a town that is objectively doing well.
Population growth in the Northfield-Faribault area, for instance, ranks third in Minnesota so far this decade behind lake-country Bemidji and booming Alexandria among so-called “micropolitan” areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
And there are signs that an appeal to seniors will help in the years to come, as proximity to cultural offerings and Rochester’s Mayo Clinic come into play.
The town is an attraction meanwhile to its colleges as they compete for top talent.
After getting a music Ph.D. from Harvard last year, Louis Epstein entertained offers from liberal arts colleges in small towns across the country.
But on an afternoon in late July, Epstein, his wife, their 2-year old and the family dog were on the last leg of a cross-country moving trip from Amherst, Mass., to a house near St. Olaf College, where he’ll start teaching this fall.
“We [wanted] everything to be walkable,” Epstein said, “but also near enough a big city and an airport. Our priority was to put roots in a place where we could see ourselves staying a long time.”
His wife, a graduate student in library science, had fond memories of the town from her time as a student at Carleton College, and the two have enjoyed visits to the town together. They’re looking forward to spending time at indie businesses like Goodbye Blue Monday coffeehouse, Carleton’s arboretum, and developing relationships with shop owners around town.
“I got a sense that it was a great place to be,” he said.
Businesses like the olive oil shop, yoga studio and organic foods co-op were part of the draw for Linda Dahl and her husband, Scott Dennison, who moved to Northfield this month. They enjoyed living near St. Charles, Minn., but Dennison’s one hour, 40-minute commute to his financial advisory firm in Eagan was getting old. So they started looking for someplace nearby that also felt like a small town.
The couple, who have a 3-year old daughter, also considered moving to Lakeville and Cannon Falls. But in the end they were swayed by Northfield’s parks and its arts scene. Coupled with the proximity to her husband’s job, “the small-town feel,” she said, makes it “the best of both worlds.”
Room for improvement
That small-town feel comes at a price. Urban developments like public transit have now reached outer-ring suburbs like Lakeville and Rosemount. But there are no plans to include Northfield anytime soon. Without a car, residents such as seniors, students and immigrants have few options to reach Target and other big-box stores in the sprawling southern end of town. A one-way trip to Minneapolis by commuter coach bus runs from $13 to $25 dollars.
In recent years, a comprehensive score of Faribault-Northfield’s economic strength by the Policom Corporation has slipped from 20th-best in 2005 to 100th of 576 “micropolitan” areas in 2014. Marshall, Willmar and Red Wing trail it within 30 places.
Howeve, building permits through July 23 were nearly equal to all of 2013, and remodeling permits are up 16 percent over a year ago, according to data from the city of Northfield.
A high ranking from a source such as Livability should only be the start of Northfield’s strategy, said Jon Maynard, who runs the public-private Economic Development Foundation of Oxford, Miss.
Oxford, a fellow college town as home of Ole Miss, took second place in last year’s Livability list. But part of Maynard’s job is to get it on more such lists by “building relationships with people who can tell your story.”
Getting press from a third party such as Kiplingers, CNN or Where to Retire magazine, as Oxford has, is “three times the value” of paid advertising, he said.
“You get on somebody else’s list by being on their list,” he said.
Another key, he said: “Know what your strengths are, and play on those.”
For Oxford — the same size as Northfield, and twice as far from Memphis, Tenn., as Northfield is from Minneapolis — one niche has been courting retirees and those soon to retire.
“They’re bringing significant incomes and significant net worth into the community,” he said, and they “buy into the charm before they even get here.”
While cities across the country are trying to “chase smokestacks,” he said, the incoming population of seniors to Oxford is “essentially a very clean industry” that doesn’t take away from its small-town feel.
Lynne Pederson thinks Northfield could be attracting seniors in the same way. As director of the Northfield Senior Center, she hears from people who have retired to the city from across the country.
Often, Pederson said, they want to be near their kids or grandkids in the Twin Cities area, and are drawn by the “quaint look and feel” and the amount of things to do.
The town has an outsized number of nonprofits to volunteer at, and the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium (Motto: “A Questing Mind Never Retires”) runs courses taught by retired Carleton and St. Olaf professors on everything from the poetry of Seamus Heaney to the history of occupied Palestine.
After coming for a lecture or a swim at the center’s pool, seniors don’t hang around. “They have other things to do,” she said. “They’re just very, very active.”
‘A sense of community’
Even without the year-after-year buoy that the colleges provide, Northfield’s boutique economy seems to be doing well despite the broader economy’s failure to rebound from a recession that ended five years ago. The Morgans’ olive oil store, now in its 20th month, opened in a wave of other small downtown shops: a cupcake bakery, bagel shop, high-end furniture store, dog groomer, and salvaged metal jewelry store. All are still in business.
An outsized local arts scene appears to be helping. Two Saturdays in a row this summer, downtown’s Bridge Square played host to the semiregular Vintage Band Festival and the first Cannon River Roots Festival, which drew hundreds of people throughout the day.
Earlier in the day, people strolled around its upscale farmers and artists market, held each weekend in summer and fall. In a survey of its guests last summer, Riverwalk Market Fair found that 45 percent of its visitors came from outside the city’s ZIP code.
The Morgans said they also get good business from nearby towns. They’re trying to draw in residents of outer-ring suburbs such as Rosemount with local advertisements on the Food Network and HGTV. But they say they can always count on support from locals.
“People here have a sense of community,” Joe Morgan said, and they make a point of coming in to support their olive oil shop. “They’re here to help make sure we stay.”
Graison Hensley Chapman is a freelance writer.