Thursday, August 10, 2006

Uranium to Ur-Done to Ur-Turning-It-Around

“We were a uranium mining town from the ‘40s into the early ‘80s when the mine closed down. We still had quite a bit of activity into the early 90s with the clean-up that went on around the mine, but after that we were dead. People moved out of town. Our houses were being bought for pennies on the dollar and being moved to Rapid City and other area towns. We were going downhill.” Mayor Mark Hollenbeck was telling me about his hometown of Edgemont, SD (population 867). Edgemont had won the SD Community of the Year Award at the FHLB Conference I was speaking at.

Edgemont, which means “Edge of the Mountain”, is almost on the state line with Wyoming, but it was more on the edge of failure when Hollenbeck moved back home six years ago. He had spent most of his career in the state capital of Pierre working as a state legislator and lobbyist.

In the year before he decided to run for mayor of his hometown, there had been four mayors and a great deal of infighting taking place. Turning around a place like Edgemont was a formidable task.

“We started out with small wins. We had someone who wanted to start a dinner theater in the old cattle sale barn and worked out a $1 lease for them to get started. They can seat 40 for dinner and another 100 for the shows. They’ve been sold out for every show they’ve put on except maybe two or three. That got people’s attention and started to turn things around. We saw that we could do things to make Edgemont a better place in which to live.”

“When we lost our grocery store, we put together $100,000 in local funds and helped a couple that also had bought an old steak house to take it over. That motivated a gal to open a soda and ice cream shop across the street. It all just started to build upon itself.”

Edgemont is on the main line of the BN, bringing coal trains out of the Powder River Basin, and railroad jobs are very plentiful in the town. However, Edgemont’s reputation (brand) as being a “down in its luck town” caused most to live in neighboring towns of Hot Springs and Custer. But, the efforts of Mayor Hollenbeck and others to start to turn the town around started to make a difference and people are again moving back to the town.

“One of the things that I’m most proud of is that we now have the largest kindergarten class that we’ve had in the past ten years. We’ve got 15 students, which means that we won’t have to have combined classes like we have in the third and fourth grades, where we only have 18 students combined in the two classes. It will help us to keep our school.”

Mayors have to think like real estate developers. The best ones realize that a town can very easily tip from boom to bust or back. Mayor Hollenbeck is one of those who realizes the importance of development and is doing something important for his hometown.

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