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Stevens FORWARD! -- Energizing Stevens County's retail centers

By Nancy Woodke

Sun Tribune

The Sunrise Sale in Morris, held in early May, is a primer to the spring shopping season, which includes events such as Mother's Day and graduation.

It is the goal of downtown merchants to keep those dollars spent in the local community. That is also the goal of the Stevens FORWARD! initiative and the stewards have made it one of 14 Destiny Drivers.

"By 2015 revitalization initiatives will energize our downtowns and retail centers, increasing commercial and retail sales."

This Destiny Driver is a priority of Stevens FORWARD! steward Ray Suess, who has been a part of the local business community since he was 17 years old. After managing the lumber yard for 25 years, Suess became the owner of Morris Lumber and Millwork in 1999.

Suess believes that communication needs to start among the communities in the local economy, and he feels that all Stevens County residents need to be represented in that discussion.

"It's not one person's problem, it's everyone's," said Suess. "We need to help each other."

He firmly believes that no single community can survive without the people in the rest of the county.

Suess envisions bringing one or two people from each community in Stevens County, along with their respective mayors, together to form a county-wide committee. That organization would then gather ideas and talk about ways to implement improvements.

Those discussions need to focus on business in general, not just retail stores.

Suess said that farming is big business in Stevens County and those owners and operators need to be included in the conversation.

"People have good ideas, but you don't always hear them," said Suess.

Each community is aware of what it doesn't have, but Suess wonders if they realize what they do have.

"We need to make people aware of what is available," said Suess. "Then we need people to come up with ways to create more business and retail."

The Stevens County Fair is an example Suess gives of what can be accomplished when people are brought together from throughout the county.

"We have a fantastic fair," said Suess.

He credits that to people working together and overcoming differences to accomplish a common goal.

"To make our community strong, we need to bring everyone together... on a county level," said Suess. "That's the only way we'll all last."

The neighboring community of Hoffman has faced the same challenges as those in Stevens County. Businesses and retailers were closing their doors at an alarming rate. But, in the last year the city of Hoffman has seen much growth, with those same doors opening on new businesses.

Muriel Krusemark, who heads the Hoffman Economic Development Association (HEDA), has been working with University of Minnesota, Morris students to revitalize the economy in downtown Hoffman.

Surveys discovered that Hoffman residents wanted improvements in health care, and with that goal in mind, a grant was applied for and was received from Prime West for a health care mall which is scheduled to open in June.

Since the start of the initiatives, HEDA has made significant progress in downtown Hoffman. In fact, Krusemark said there are only three places left to fill on main street.

The Main Street Galleria, a small business mall developed by local residents, currently houses 27 retailers. Other retail businesses include a scratch-and-dent/used appliance store and a hardware store. Manufacturing businesses have also expanded and a telemarketing business started.

Hoffman, a town with a population of less than 700, proves that small, rural communities can bring in new businesses that will keep people shopping locally and attract more growth.

However, Suess said revitalization isn't all about increasing the numbers of businesses in the county.

"It doesn't mean we can't grow on what we already have," he said.

The current businesses in our local communities are capable of providing at least some of the needs, but they need the support of the consumers.

"How much more can we expect of them?" asked Suess. "How can we help them fulfill the needs?"

Suess admits that there is "no quick answer" and that the solution will be a process.

In his opinion, accomplishing this Destiny Driver will mean offering a larger scale of products, adding a few major businesses, and providing some niche markets.

Suess says that the ultimate goal is for Stevens County to be "sustainable." He compares the local economy to going "green" for the environment. Reusing and recycling can go a long ways toward sustainability. So too, can recycling the money earned in the local economy.

"Retaining a larger percentage of earned dollars in our county is the only way we'll be sustainable," said Suess. "That's going to take a lot of effort."

Suess says that energizing the local economy isn't completely the responsibility of the retail sector, but is also dependent on the habits of consumers.

A couple of generations ago, children witnessed their parents doing all their shopping and other business in the home town. Those habits started changing drastically in the 1970s with advances in transportation and communication.

"It's an educational process and it starts at home and in schools," he said.

Local consumers need to be aware of how they do their buying, Seuss says, and keep as many dollars in the county as they can.

He's confident that this initiative will be able to make a difference in the local economy.

"We need to create some sparks," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but revitalization can start on a small scale."

Suess feels that many business owners would agree that they'd like to be there in the future, not only to make a living, but to contribute to the well-being of the county as a whole.

"This community has been good to us," said Suess. "It's a great place to live and do business."

With the realization of this Destiny Driver, Suess hopes that Stevens County's future will be bright for his children and grandchildren and their generations.

Are you a 'Champion'?

Stevens FORWARD! stewards are seeking "Champions" -- people who want to get involved in the initiative and spearhead a Destiny Driver. For more information, visit the Stevens FORWARD! Web site at, or contact Coordinator Roger McCannon via email at:, or by phone at (320) 287-0882