The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

August 26, 2013

Amid a rural decline, people aim to save their communities

HEWITT, Minn. — In Hewitt, a prairie town of 266 people almost exactly in the middle of Minnesota, moving forward looks a lot like stepping backward. Every fall for the past three years, the city has hosted Barter Fest, an outdoor swap festival. Locals and tourists come together to trade artwork for massages and musical instruments for vegetables while listening to out-of-town bands like Alien Brain and the Jugular Vein.

It's unlikely anybody would have thought to pair the words "tourists" and "Hewitt" before Michael Dagen and his wife, Amber Fletschock, moved to town five years ago to establish an artistic outpost.

Launching Barter Fest is one example of how the two thirty-somethings have pumped Hewitt full of the kind of entrepreneurial energy that could spell a new future for the little town.

Dagen, an audio engineer, and Fletschock, a visual artist, are among a small cadre of people in rural Minnesota working against long odds to save their communities. Driven by a variety of personal and professional desires — love of a river, perhaps, attachment to a piece of farm land or the goal of connecting new immigrants with longtime residents — they aim to change the courses of the places where they live. All are trying to find the way forward for rural Minnesota, where jobs have disappeared thanks to globalized manufacturing and large-scale industrial agriculture and where populations have been under pressure for decades.

"Most]of the Midwest has been sliding downhill for 30 or 40 years," said Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who studies the Midwest's economies and published a book on the topic called Caught in the Middle. "We've always been kidding ourselves that it's temporary, that we will come back, and we always have. We always do. But each time we go down a little bit lower than before and the next dip is a little further down. People are waking up and saying, 'This time is different.'"

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