"I have way too many keys," said 71-year-old Muriel Krusemark rummaging around her desk for the key to the new motel in town. It's called Motel 1 because it has exactly one room.
Krusemark has keys to many of the buildings in downtown Hoffman, population 681, because as economic development coordinator, she's had a hand in reviving many of them and filling them with businesses.
The front door to the motel turned out to be frozen shut, but never mind, there were plenty more places to see, including the new Main Street Galleria. "This was totally empty when I came," Krusemark said, pulling open the door. Inside, the former clothing store had been turned into a marketplace selling everything from soap to hand-made mittens to spatulas to children's tutus ("grandma bait"). "There are 26 small businesses in here," she said.
Krusemark moved back to Hoffman, her hometown, six years ago to retire after managing the deli at Cub foods in Shakopee. "When I came back here, main street was practically empty," she said. "There were three or four businesses. The buildings were falling down and they had dirty windows. It was like a lot of main streets." She was quickly recruited to serve as the city's development coordinator and set out to remake the place.
She's proof that sometimes all a city needs is one person with a big idea and loads of enthusiasm to create a turnaround and spur small business growth. 'This is the perfect job for me," she said. "You have to have passion for the town in order to do it."
Besides the motel and galleria, Krusemark wooed a health care clinic to move downtown from the city's outskirts, allowing it to expand and draw new clients. She helped a pet groomer from Las Vegas open a shop. The city now has a thrift shop, an appliance store, a garage that builds race cars, a hardware store and a computer sales and repair shop. She spurred improvements to the softball field and city park, hastened the building of townhomes on a vacant street, started a farmers' market, opened a food shelf and helped raise $6,200 to put a new logo on the water tower.
Downtown isn't exactly teeming with foot traffic, but it's got life. Small businesses are especially important in Minnesota's smallest cities and many have stopped trying to lure in that big manufacturer that will provide 100 jobs. Instead they're building their economies from the ground up, one business at a time.
Everything was just about empty. Now there is something occupying most of the buildings
Longtime Mayor Dennis Satre stops on his way into the post office. "Everything was just about empty," he said. "Now there is something occupying most of the buildings. Muriel is a good one to get out there and visit with people."
Krusemark's other gifts include the ability to draw others into her efforts. "It takes lots of people to get things done," she said. "There's lots you can do without money." She credits volunteers for the changes in town and replenishes the ranks by running a welcome wagon targeting newcomers. She's used labor from the University of Minnesota's Center for Small Towns and the Douglas County sentenced-to-serve program. Nonprofits, too, have lent assistance and grants, including the West Central Initiative foundation and Prime West Health. The Minnesota Twins contributed dollars to fix up the softball field.
Local property and business owners also have stepped up, putting time and money on the line, like T.J. Clavin, who bought the building that houses the galleria, and Bob Thelen, who owns the appliance shop. "It panned out well, better than anticipated," said Thelen, whose jam-packed store is open once a week.
Not all the businesses are successful and even those that are don't necessarily generate a lot of income. "People in small towns are not in business to make a living," Krusemark said. "This is extra money to survive on," supplemental income. "This is going to give you $100, $200 or $300 per month." Running a business in Hoffman isn't like it once was, she said, and if a store is only open one day a week, so be it.
Still, the impact on the city's culture is palpable. "When people can see something happening, they are so much more willing to work and donate," she said. "It has to be for real. There is a whole different attitude here." Noting that the city's population has increased by nine since the 2000 census, Krusemark added, "People aren't leaving anymore."
"She is an extraordinary person," said David Fluegel, community program specialist for the Center for Small Towns in Morris. The center has informally adopted Hoffman, just 20 miles from campus, and has placed several students there since Krusemark first asked for help. They've assisted with a survey to find out what locals wanted, an assessment of the building stock, web marketing and the identification of grant opportunities. "We've done a little bit of everything," said Fluegel. "Whatever projects Muriel is working on and needs an extra set of hands for."
"I think having someone like Muriel is definitely one of the ways a community can get on track toward being more vital and reinvigorating their situation," he said. There's a story about Krusemark Fluegel likes to tell. "In the meetings she's had with people over the years, if someone expresses a negative attitude, she won't call them out at the meeting. But it's guaranteed that she'll meet them the next morning in their office and have a conversation about negativity and how it gets in the way of trying to accomplish their goals."
Muriel is the saving grace of Hoffman
In the back room of the old high school, which closed in the 1990s, Krusemark's latest endeavor, a food shelf, opened in January to serve Hoffman and nearby Kensington. It's tidy with newly-tiled floors and painted walls, the work done by volunteers. The food lining the shelves is courtesy of eight local churches. Already it serves 26 families and the number is growing.
"Muriel is the saving grace of Hoffman," said Heidi Nygard, who works part-time running the food shelf. "I'd lived here for 12 years and nobody knew I was here. I never met anybody. Then comes this little spitfire."
Nygard was unemployed, having quit her job at Walmart in Alexandria to start a business that didn't pan out, when Krusemark put her to work. "Everything on main street is thanks to Muriel. We weren't even a community," she said. "Now we are."