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Arne Kildegaard plans to connect the dots around the Center for Small Towns

MORRIS, Minn. - As the new director of the Center for Small Towns, University of Minnesota, Morris professor Arne Kildegaard will spend his time connecting the dots between the Center, the campus and the community.

Kildegaard, an associate professor of economics and management at UMM, was named director in January, taking over for interim director Bart Finzel, who accepted a two-year appointment as interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean at UMM.

When Kildegaard joined the faculty at UMM in 2001, he said he made a conscious decision to try and use the things he had learned as an economist to engage with challenges in the community.

"My original field of interest is economic development, but in the sense of international economic development," said Kildegaard. "I spent a lot of time in Latin America, worrying about the problems of low income countries and that sort of thing. I still love that work, but I didn't want to find myself isolated and worrying about the other side of the world exclusively."

He connected with Center for Small Towns Community Program Specialist David Fluegel during the faculty orientation process, who "very graciously and enthusiastically helped me get a toe-hold and pointed me to various resources and interested parties," said Kildegaard.

"Eventually those contacts got me touch with things that were interesting and got the gears clicking."

Kildegaard has a long-standing relationship with the Center, doing faculty-led research on topics like the role for renewable energy as a community-based resource and the Morris rental housing market, and appreciates the quality of life that develops in a small town.

"A lot of people, when they think of less densely populated areas, when they think of open spaces, they think of what's not there," said Kildegaard.

But as someone who has "lived on both sides of the fence" - working in Chicago and the Twin Cities before moving to Morris - Kildegaard said there are major quality of life benefits to living in a small town.

"[It's] learning to think of the community as full of attributes instead of deficiencies; there are some real attributes out here that are not only worth recognizing, but worth connecting the dots between them," said Kildegaard.

As the Center's second academic director - the first two directors, Roger McCannon and Tom McRoberts, came to the position with deep ties to the greater Morris and university communities - Kildegaard said he is part of a gradual shift for the Center into an entity that feels more at home at a liberal arts college.

"I think we have a justly positive reputation for creating goodwill and helping people find their way around inside the university and helping people from inside the university find their way out to the community," said Kildegaard.

"There's a lot of power and goodwill here; a little bit of cajoling and a little bit of grant can help open some opportunities inside the region," he added.

An ongoing challenge for the Center will be budget concerns, so Kildegaard said one of his goals will be to help the Center become a little less dependent on central funding and diversify revenue streams by expanding fee-for-service projects like statistical consulting, web development, project analysis and program evaluation.

"The question is how can we can continue to do the things we do really well and protect that a little bit by [developing] new ways of providing services that might generate new revenue flows," said Kildegaard. "I'm certainly not going to come in and insist everything has a price tag on it."

Although Kildegaard comes to the position with less experience than his predecessors, he said his strength will be building on the deep connections that already exist around the Center for Small Towns.

"The job is, I think, really largely about connecting the dots," he said. "That means you have to figure out where the dots are, then try and think about what they might have in common and creative ways that they might work together. That's the challenge, and I'm looking forward to it."