Northfield's charm wins city growth, national ranking

  • Article by: GRAISON HENSLEY CHAPMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2014 - 2:49 PM
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The Archer House, on Division Street in downtown Northfield, is a local landmark with a distinct Western feel to its shaded walkway.

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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

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  • Froggy Bottom’s River Pub in downtown Northfield was flooded out a year ago by the adjacent flowing Cannon River. Laurie Hoheisel and Shannon Mills refurbished it for its reopening.

  • Top small towns

    Livability.com’s 2014 list of top 10 small towns includes Northfield.

    Rank, city Population *Income

     1. Los Alamos, N.M. 12,019 $71,536

     2. Northfield, Minn. 20,340 $64,731

     3. Lebanon, N.H. 13,113 $59,124

     4. Hood River, Ore. 7,472 $52,583

     5. Port Angeles, Wash. 19,339 $39,398

     6. Glenwood Springs, Colo. 9,971 $58,573

     7. Spearfish, S.D. 11,072 $37,511

     8. Heber City, Utah 12,087 $58,441

     9. Traverse City, Mich. 14,925 $43,120

    10. Hailey, Idaho 8,084 $65,101

    * Median household income

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