Community Building

Photo of Kelly Asche and Val Martin by Dan Tiernan, class of 2015, University of Minnesota Morris

Photo of Kelly Asche and Val Martin by Dan Tiernan, class of 2015, University of Minnesota Morris


Before you make changes to improve something, it’s best to know what needs improving. So a few years back, representatives from every community in Grant County got together to form an economic development group they aptly named Grow Grant County. “As a group, we thought we could work together to come up with ways to grow and promote our county as a whole,” recalls Val Martin, economic development director for the city of Ashby and the de facto chair of the group.


With grant funding the West Central Initiative, Grow Grant County hired a facilitator to help them come up with a list of ideas and strategies for community and economic development. Topping the list was the need to survey community residents about their shopping habits, so they called on the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) Center For Small Towns for help.


Launched in 1995, the center harnesses UMM resources to work collaboratively with small towns in rural Minnesota on local issues. Undergraduates play a leading role in every project, and the community-engaged work offers applied learning opportunities for students and faculty. “We’re different from other organizations because rather than specific programming, we offer methodologies to assist small towns with community and economic development projects,” explains Kelly Asche, the center’s program coordinator.


In the case of Grow Grant County, the methodology was a consumer survey created with help from Ryan Pesch, a University of Minnesota Extension educator in West Central Minnesota. Pesch created a similar survey in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin ( some years earlier and with a few modifications, it fit the needs of Grant County perfectly.


Mailed to a random sample of 650 homeowners throughout the county, the paper survey asked people what they were buying, where they shopped and what types of businesses they would like to see in the county. If they weren’t shopping in Grant County, the survey asked for an explanation: Was it prices? Variety? Convenience? The response rate was high—400 households. And the data was compiled and analyzed by Asche and Jordan Wente, a UMM undergraduate who is triple-majoring in economics, Spanish and statistics.


While Grow Grant County learned some things that were expected, such as people often shop outside the county because they like the convenience, prices and selection offered by big-box stores. There were some surprises. “We didn’t expect that so many people wanted more fine dining options, so that really stood out,” says Martin. Townspeople also wanted more places to shop for clothing and different types of clothing offerings. Additionally, more than 60 percent of respondents said they would like to buy locally, if possible, which is good news for Grant County.


So far, a town meeting has been held to discuss the survey’s findings. The next step, Martin says, is for individual communities to consider the information that is pertinent to them and discuss their options. “The information the center provided us with was great, and now we all need to think about ways to retain businesses and attract new businesses to our towns.”


At the same time, Martin and the other Grow Grant County members are hoping to start work on another project with the Center. For this project, they would like to do an assessment of the county’s assets, including infrastructure, park systems and activities Grant county has to offer. “Kelly already helped us apply for a community assistantship to do the study, and if we get it, we’ll be working together again soon.”

Through the Office for Public Engagement, the University promotes collaborations like the Grant County/Center for Small Towns partnership that advance robust community engagement partnerships. Rooted in a comprehensive ten-point plan for public engagement, the University supports community engagement strategies through the development of community-partnered research, teaching and outreach that address critical societal issues while optimizing educational experiences for students participating in community-focused learning. Learn more about the University's public engagement agenda.