Back to the Sep-Oct 2019 issue

Bird Island Sees Brighter Future for Main Street

By Renee McGivern

There is a new burst of enthusiasm among members of the Civic & Commerce Association (C&C) of Bird Island, Minnesota. They’ve signed up for a program that will help them revitalize their downtown and encourage residents to shop locally.

Minnesota Network Community is a new introductory membership of Minnesota Main Street, a program of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota that helps communities maximize their people and built assets.

Bird Island, located in Renville County, has a population just under 1,000. As in many small cities, it’s challenging to maintain a vibrant downtown area.

“I always hoped that once I retired, I could build in a systematic way to expand our development efforts downtown,” says Mark Glesener, C&C president and former Bird Island business owner. “I like the robustness of the Network Community program.”

The C&C’s business development efforts were often piecemeal over the years. “We never really knew how to delve into the needs of individual businesses, nor connect residents to those businesses. We didn’t have any development principles to guide us,” Glesener says.

New tools and networking

The Minnesota Main Street program staff trains and supports members in using a revitalization framework and tools based on the successes of small communities across the country.

“We provide workshops, training, networking opportunities, and resources,” says Sarina Otaibi, Minnesota Main Street coordinator. “We know what each community is doing well, and we connect the cities, so they don’t reinvent the wheel.”

The program’s guidance was just what the Bird Island C&C was looking for.

“Right before the first Main Street training, we considered revisiting some ideas that stalled out,” says Rick Bonlender, president of Frandsen Bank & Trust in Bird Island. “But after that training, we set those aside because we learned the first step in engaging the community is to listen.”

For Glesener and Bonlender, the chairpersons of the Bird Island Network Community Program, the opportunity to network with other Main Street communities is particularly appealing.

“We’re looking at getting a group to visit some [Minnesota Main Street] member cities,” says Bonlender. “We’ll be able to talk to people we would not otherwise have known and who are as committed as we are to revitalizing our downtowns.”

Membership levels

Minnesota Main Street now has two membership options: Network Community or Designated Community.

Network Communities like Bird Island pay $250 annually to learn the framework, tap into Otaibi’s knowledge, and network with other members. The cities of Luverne, Sleepy Eye, Sauk Centre, and Litchfield have also joined at this level. Designated Communities pay $2,500 annually for the full array of training and services as they become fully accredited. They also hire someone to implement the program in their communities.

The cities of Olivia and Willmar are Designated Communities.

“We now know who to reach out to in Olivia and Willmar so we can find out what they’re doing,” says Bonlender. “We’re not competing with each other. We’re learning from each other.”

City involvement

Minnesota Main Street members are usually business or civic groups. It’s also likely that the local economic development authority (EDA) or similar city agency is involved or at least aware of the local Main Street program.

“Our EDA assists local businesses, and its main focus is to keep the businesses we have,” says Bird Island City Administrator Deb Lingl. “It’s important to do whatever it takes to help Main Street thrive, and we are very fortunate to have business leaders who are willing to do this.”

Community engagement

Since its first training last April, the Bird Island Main Street team has been engaging the community in conversations on such topics as the importance of shopping downtown.

Some Bird Island business owners and residents recently bought Maynard’s grocery story, which is now called Island Market. The Main Street team would like to see more initiatives like that to bring people downtown.

“There was a time when everyone in Bird Island would come downtown on a Friday night to shop and catch up with each other,” says Glesener, a life-long resident. “We really want to recreate that experience again.”

Renee McGivern is a freelance writer based in Woodbury, Minnesota.