A different downtown
Krusemark knows Hoffman will never again be the town she bused to for school after milking cows each morning. Or even the city of the 1970s, when she and her then-husband owned a grocery store.
For one thing, there is no school. It closed in the 1990s. When Krusemark worked at the school in the 1960s as a secretary and bookkeeper, seven full buses brought children in from the country to the K-12 school, which had 420 students. Now, kids go to Barrett or Kensington, 7 miles in either direction.
David Starner, who still farms his family’s land, measures the shift this way: “When I was a boy, there were 20 or 30 farms that sold to the creamery,” he said. “That same area today, there’s four.”
Small towns like Hoffman are grappling with people and businesses migrating to regional centers such as Alexandria — Alec, to people here — as the share of Minnesotans living in rural areas has shrunk in recent decades. In Grant County, where Hoffman sits, the change was dramatic: From 1960 to 2010, the population dropped by nearly a third, or more than 2,800 people, U.S. Census Bureau data show. Today, more than 22 percent of people living in the county are 65 years or older — among the highest percentages in the state.
“The farms got bigger, and people moved away,” Krusemark said. “There’s just not the population” in the countryside to support a school or the kind of storefronts that packed Main Avenue in the 1960s and ’70s.
Krusemark left Hoffman, too. After getting divorced in 1989, she was “broke,” she said. “I had to go where the money is.” She worked six days a week as a deli manager at a Shakopee grocery store while helping her daughter run a Prior Lake bridal shop.
But she always knew she’d return home to Hoffman. There, she built a “grandma house” — one level, no steps — two blocks from downtown and worked at a deli in Alexandria before hearing about the Hoffman job.
“It is exactly what I love to do,” Krusemark said. “It’s a real challenge for me.”
The challenge is steep: Small towns’ Main Street businesses used to be interdependent with agriculture, Fluegel said. “That relationship has all changed. Those businesses are really struggling to figure out what’s next for their future.”
Krusemark encourages shops to get creative. The appliance store opens on Fridays, only. The clinic takes appointments three days a week. The grocery store also boasts a cafe, party room and laundromat with six machines.
To launch her projects — including a food shelf, a community garden and next, a bike path to Elk Lake — she tapped the West Central Initiative and the Center for Small Towns, on the Morris campus, for expertise, grants and manpower. The Center for Small towns adopted Hoffman, sending students to intern with Krusemark. Each intern has been “a gift from heaven,” she said.
When Marcus Grubbs began his internship with Krusemark in 2008, he was studying environmental science. But the work sparked his interest in planning. After going to graduate school for planning and economic development, he became a community planner for the Headwaters Regional Development Commission in Bemidji.
“Some of the things that people spend a lot of money to learn, Muriel knew intuitively,” Grubbs said. On the job, he regularly hears Krusemark’s voice in his head.
Many towns focus too much energy in attracting the next 40-employee company, Grubbs said. But Muriel always said “one job in a small town really can support a family of four,” he said. “One family at a time, one job at a time.”
‘You really can’t say no’
Just before folks began arriving at the city park for the Wednesday night farmers market, Krusemark was trying to get the coffee going. She put her ear to the urn, but it was silent.
“Norwegians without hot coffee is not a good thing,” Krusemark said, laughing.