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Scott County Library Director Vanessa Birdsey unwrapped seats in the children's area at the new library in Jordan. The old library was only 1,100 square feet; the new one will be about seven times that size.

Bruce Bisping , Star Tribune

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

There's plenty of small-town America in Twin Cities south metro

  • Article by: David Peterson
  • Star Tribune
  • May 7, 2013 - 4:05 PM

“This all started because our squads would go dead,” said Bob Malz.

“Our squad cars have so much equipment in them, the batteries would go dead,” the Jordan police chief explained.

“And we were told not to jump-start them with other squads; it takes too much juice.

“You can’t have cars going to calls and the battery being dead. So we got a jump starter — like at Sam’s Club. I just put a 50-buck battery pack in the squads. And then I’m thinking, ‘If we’re driving around anyway, why not help the public if they need it?’ ”

Thus, the announcement this past winter: Car won’t start? Call us.

Ah, small-town America.

If you check the school website in New Prague, you will find the cellphone number of the superintendent of schools. Call that number, and he answers.

Call the bank in Elko New Market and ask to be put through to the president, and without even saying who you are, you are put through.

Elko doesn’t even have its own snowplow. Its library, until recently, was a Quonset hut.

Towns like these might be 5 or 10 minutes down the road from a suburb 10 times as big, but in some ways it’s a whole other world.

And as a new and first-ever citizen survey in Elko New Market makes clear, there’s still a lot to like about the “real-deal” small town orbiting the busy metro.

To be sure, the litany of troubles in the exurbs is familiar. High gas prices have hit hard for folks with long commutes. Foreclosures hit hard during the Great Recession, when grass grew long in abandoned yards. Growth slowed to a crawl.

But Elkoites, for the most part, cherish the age-old qualities of rural life.

“Three big things jump out at me when I think about the small towns in Scott County, or anyplace, versus much bigger cities,” said Dave Unmacht, who has been the top administrator both for the county as a whole and for tiny Belle Plaine:

“First, a strongly shared sense of heritage and history: deep roots all across town, with many descendants still remaining from the founding families.

“Second, that thing about the Six Degrees of Separation: everyone is connected, and when you are in touch with city hall, or with a business, there is often a family or a lifelong connection” — innate ties of the kind bigger cities have to sweat to instill.

“Third is the foundational importance of the schools,” symbolized tangibly, for instance, by the sign on the roadway leading into New Prague glorying in all the past state championships in sports.

Of course, some of that comfortable embeddedness comes off to newcomers as insularity.

An article in this section a few years ago about attempts to bridge the across-the-highway cultures of suburban newcomers and old-town old-timers sparked a series of scathing exchanges online. An old-timer in one small town interviewed for this article was embarrassed to be unable to name a single one of the thousands of commuting newcomers living on basically the same patch of ground.

The blame went in part to a lack of common civic gathering places, other than churches, and that at least is beginning to get addressed in at least a pair of the towns.

Vanessa Birdsey, chief of the entire Scott County library system, was in Jordan last week helping with the installation of the furniture in that city’s new library, which is to open later this month. It will be quite a change, and one that has been awaited for many years.

The cramped, aging downtown library rang in at 1,100 square feet. The new one is about seven times as big.

“We’re finally catching up with all that growth,” she said.

Elko has had its new library in place now for about a year, and circulation of materials has more than doubled. The larger of the meeting rooms alone is nearly four times the square footage of the entire building the city had before.

“What we had,” said Tom Terry, the city administrator, “is not what most communities would expect of a library.”

Other amenities that could lead to more elbow-rubbing are arriving as well.

It is a “huge thing” for Elko, said Todd Anderson, president of that city’s chamber of commerce, to have the new Firehouse Grille, a nice sit-down restaurant, opening in a town too small to have attracted so much as a McDonald’s or any other form of fast food.

“I can’t tell you how happy people were when that was announced,” he said. “We probably had 80 ‘likes’ on our Facebook page within three hours. It was just ‘boom boom boom.’ ”

In fact, he ardently hopes that one side-effect of the monstrous roadwork headaches this spring and summer on Interstate 35, including shutdowns of entire segments of freeway leading in one direction, will be a tendency to try shopping closer to home rather than always tripping off to Lakeville or Shakopee — something he admits both he and his wife have been known to do themselves.

“I’m in Chaska right now,” he said by cellphone, “and it’s easy here to grab a few things and take two minutes to do it, while in Elko it can be a drive — though I do expect more retail within the next year or so.”

The Elko survey finds lots of folks dreaming of more shops in a town that lacks so much as a supermarket. But there’s a new satellite medical clinic, as a prelude to a full-fledged facility, and Jordan likewise will soon get the first pharmacy it’s had in a long time.

The irritants of inconvenience in a way are the flip side of the thing that residents value: the peace and quiet, the genuinely rural feel to things, even if the latest subdivision looks an awful lot like one in Shakopee.

If growth has slowed dramatically in all these towns, the truth is that in the hypergrowth years, the growth rate in Dakota and Scott counties was a major source of griping. If Elko New Market really were heading for 20,000 souls within the next couple of decades, as it once appeared to be, it wasn’t going to be that small.

There are advantages to small, said Jordan chief Malz.

“We’re pretty rare around here in that we don’t, for instance, have an alarm ordinance; most of the big suburbs give you a couple of false alarms and then start charging. I refuse to do that. Obviously we don’t get the volume that bigger places would — they simply don’t have time to go to multiple alarms. Me, I just called a gas station whose alarm kept going off and said, ‘Hey! Fix your alarm!’ ”

 

David Peterson • 952-746-3285





 

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