Michael Dagen and his wife Amber Fletschock moved from St. Croix Falls to Hewitt, a town of 250 people, two years ago to build a dream life.
Dagen is a sound engineer and Fletschock a visual artist; together they make the band Dorthy Fix.
Hewitt may seem an unlikely destination for the two, both in their thirties, who remade a ramshackle house with hand-laid mosaics and blue-stained hardwood floors. The city has a cafe, but few other businesses. Nearly a quarter of the population is over 65.
Yet Dagen and Fletschock, whose sister lives in Bertha, have made Hewitt their home. "We're secretly hoping we can get more artists and craftspeople to move to this area," says Dagen. "It's a cheap and beautiful place to live. If you think about walking around town in 50 years, what will be here unless something changes?"
The couple has become a two-person revitalization effort. Dagen was instrumental in landing a $156,000 state grant to partially restore the city's grand historical museum. Work began in April with local contractors. He and Fletschock have purchased Rebekah Hall, once home to the women's branch of the Odd Fellows, which they have turned into a music and art studio.
In September, they will present a city-wide music and barter festival, complete with fire dancers. The music stage will be built on Rebekah's front steps. "This will be a bit of an unveiling," says Dagen. "People will either try to throw us out of town or they'll love it."
He and his wife have brought a welcome infusion of youthful energy and ingenuity to a county that's older than the state average and getting grayer all the time. By 2030, it's expected that a quarter of Todd County's residents will be 65 or older.
Elected officials, business leaders, and regular citizens have debated for decades how to bolster the economy, provide jobs for Todd's youth so they'll stay or return after college and attract people like Dagen and Fletschock.
Recently, the county secured a Healthy Communities Partnership grant from the Initiative Foundation to help identify solutions. A "visioning session" is scheduled for June 8 in Browerville.
Discussions of the future often find their way to technology, specifically broadband internet, which some have argued for years is key to Todd County's economic success. "We had high speed internet before we had running water," says Dagen. "Living here without it would definitely be a challenge."
The county is served by a patchwork of internet providers who charge varying fees for a range of bandwidths. Some of these fees are higher than what people pay for similar services in urban areas.
County Administrator Nathan Burkett is pushing to build a new fiber optic system -- light traveling along glass; the best technology available -- which could go a long way toward lowering consumer prices and increasing connection speeds.
"In order to survive, we need to get a fiber optic network," Burkett says. "We need to make sure every home can get reasonable access."
The system could benefit local industry as well.
"There are a lot of businesses that as they grow, need more connectivity," says Burkett, who hopes to have fiber optics in place by 2013. "This is Thomas Friedman's flat world. Realistically, you are not a player in the game unless you have that level of connectivity."
Burkett echoes national and statewide sentiments.
"We think of broadband as critical infrastructure for participation in the 21st century," says Bernadine Joselyn, Director of Public Policy and Engagement for the Blandin Foundation, which is set to receive $4.7 million in federal stimulus funds for broadband initiatives. "It's not unlike roads and electricity in the past."
With better connectivity, says Joselyn, governments operate more efficiently and so do schools. Students, in classrooms or at home, can learn even the most esoteric skills via video. Remote job training becomes an option as well, she adds.
"We can expose people to the careers of the future and to the onramps to those careers." Installation costs are a factor, and some remain skeptical as to whether broadband will improve rural economies, since it creates efficiencies that can lead to downsizing and even outsourcing.
But, Christopher Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says outsourcing from one location can mean "insourcing" to Todd County.
"L.L. Bean employs a lot of people in rural Maine who work from their homes," says Mitchell. "A fair number of companies are bringing their customer service back" into the country.
One local business that's benefitting from technology and is pushing for a fiber optic network in Staples is Lakewood Health System. Tim Rice, Lakewood's president, views broadband as crucial.
"I don't think we can afford not to do it," he says. "For every public entity in this town to be interconnected, there are a lot of possibilities with that."
Nobody has to convince Beverly Meyer of technology's upside. She's one of six chronically-ill patients Lakewood monitors electronically. Meyer is outfitted with a small box that is hooked to a scale, a blood-pressure sleeve, and a finger ring that measures blood oxygen levels.
Each morning, her vitals are wired to Lakewood, where a nurse checks them over. The 78-year-old, who lives on a farm outside Staples, never had much use for the internet before.
"I've never monkeyed with it all," she says. But on Easter morning, when the machine revealed signs of internal bleeding, she was glad she had it. Meyer was rushed to the hospital and treated.
Lakewood hopes to expand the pilot program, partially funded by Blandin. Jessica Martensen, Lakewood's Home Care/Hospice Director, says tele-medicine not only leads to better service for patients, but saves money because nurses make fewer in-person visits.
"A lot of patients we monitor...have symptoms that are a prelude to a significant event," she says. "If we can catch those symptoms early, we can prevent emergency room trips or hospitalizations."
These sorts of efficiencies will be crucial in the coming aging crunch. Says Martensen, "We can accept more people if we are more efficient with our time and resources."
Fourth of four parts: This series has been prepared by Minnesota Public Radio News as part of a project called Ground Level, which explores Minnesota communities facing their futures.
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