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Why not a greater Rushford?

Fri, May 2nd, 2008
Posted in Commentary

It is worth mentioning, that according to the Minnesota Design Team, of all the greater Rushford residents who took part in the recent brainstorming exercise, R-P students made the most lasting impression.

High school senior, Carina Schiltz, and 8th graders from JoAnne Agrimson's middle school class stole the show from a roster of otherwise articulate local "presenters" drafted from every sector of daily Rushford activity.

Mike Lamb, chairman of the MDT Steering Committee, veteran of a dozen team visits around the State, is a former executive director of the Minneapolis-based non-profit design team. For more than 20-years, the MDT has dispatched volunteer architects, urban planners, engineers, ecologists, housing specialists, public finance and administration experts to assist residents of small towns as they try to focus on a common future by sorting through issues, ideas, wants and needs. About the R-P student presentations, Lamb gushed, "I've never known young people to play such a direct role in the process."

To prepare for the MDT visit, Carina Schiltz conducted a survey of more than a hundred of her secondary school classmates. She asked pointed questions. I'll paraphrase: Would you raise a family in Rushford? What can the area provide for young people to do outside of school? What concerns you, worries you?

Teenage respondents were divided on the question of whether they would put down adult roots in the Rushford area. No surprise that some students look beyond Rushford, nor that others agree, There's no place like home. No surprise either that students overwhelmingly asked for more places to gather, a youth center, video game parlor, movie theater, someplace besides school, besides church, besides mom-and-dad's house. As for concerns, Carina's survey showed that R-P high schoolers, like students in larger cities, worry about drugs.

MDT members, 16-in-all, a few of them at least barely a decade out of high school, hailed from Missouri, Iowa, Alabama, New Mexico, Connecticut, Illinois, as well as Minnesota, places like St. Paul, Spring Valley and Rushford. A random assortment of homegrown and adopted Midwestern sensibilities, the team - to borrow a phrase - looked like America. Professionals with advanced degrees, men and women played roles of more-or-less equal-responsibility in the design process. They shared not only professional interest in small town design and a willingness to volunteer, but shared their own diversity as well in a collective stew of religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Eighteen Peterson middle school 8th graders are focused this semester on developing research and persuasion skills. To integrate these skills with the design process, the students considered a typical panorama of Rushford commercial buildings. Downtown Jessie Street, facing north, the block begins on the corner at the historic stone building, moldering since the flood, and ends with Stumpy's dark facade. The class presented their findings to team during lunch at the Village town hall. Moving west-to-east, they decided Stumpy's, with its affordable home cooking, should stay as is. Next door, in the empty jewelry store, students suggested a souvenir and school-booster paraphernalia shop. Himile photo studio would stay. Across the alley in the Holle building that has been used by the Chamber of Commerce and Rushford Art Center, 8th graders recommended a movie theater, even if it only operated on weekends. Next to that, in the old Dollar Store? A new Dollar Store. In the old Norsky Diner? The students would put a gift and card shop there. And the old stone building at the stoplight? The 8th graders decided a Chinese restaurant would be nice.

When we discussed her middle school class, teacher JoAnne Agrimson noted that, "Many of these students recognize they have a good life here, good parents, good school. That's maturity."

That's talent too. One thing about talent though, you can't fence it in. The Peterson middle school students demonstrate that school district boundaries often better define greater Rushford than do fussy jurisdictional, sewer and power lines. Ask a student. The City of Rushford, for better or for worse, serves as the economic hub of an integrated rural environment, a mutually-invested population that reaches through Peterson to the limits of the Village that surrounds both cities, and beyond.

The pertinent lesson children teach us is this: Get involved in the process of determining the future of the school district, the watersheds, the trails, highways and rivers that flow with such diversity of opportunity and talent into and out of greater Rushford. Speak up. If you oppose some or all of these new ideas, say why. Don't wait until it's time to vote No to participate in local democracy.

Without civil discourse and mature debate about what to do next, where to go from here and how to get there, pay for it, the fabulous ideas generated by MDT professionals, with that visionary energy boost from local students, will wither on the proverbial vine.

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