Is Austin, Minn. really more than Spam?

  • Small-town city planner’s visit reveals a lot about Austin

A recent free weekend, a rarity, I decided to visit what was considered “greener pastures” for a dynamic, past music educator at Pine City High School, Brad Mariska.  Brad had set out for Spamtown USA after his time in Pine, leaving a huge hole to fill in the local music program.  During Brad’s short tenure, Pine City was thrice named a “Best Community for Music Education in America” by the NAMM Foundation.

But Austin had to look good on paper for Brad.  The southeastern Minnesota city located near the Iowa border is another one of those vibrant, All-American small towns.  As it turns out, Austin is the only city in Greater Minnesota with a Fortune 500 company.  There is a sense of pride there, one that can be appreciated by a band director whose students perform about town at the various school activities and town functions.

Before Brad left, I recall several visits at Nicoll’s Café, downtown Pine City, whereby Brad would help share his vision for Pine City.  I came to find out that, overall, this band director has a real appreciation not only for music, but also for cities… and their respective people… and their respective people’s hopes and dreams.   Conversations with him were fascinating for a city planner such as myself.

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Breakfast with a side of Spam at Kenny’s Oak Grill in Austin.

After a few years of vicariously (mainly through social media) seeing the energy Brad brought to the Packers’ band program in Austin, I had to go check out this city for myself.  I’d been to Albert Lea and Rochester and other regional hubs of that area, but unfortunately I hadn’t made it to this place some 25,000 Minnesotans call home and I wanted to know what it was like.

Further, I wanted to see what the relocation meant for Brad, and how the health of the city really was.  After reading a 2014 article in the Star Tribune, “Midwest Traveler: Austin, Minn., is more than Spam”, I had to see if Austin offered something more.

I had been wanting to visit for some time, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was the gorgeous Wikipedia page that was created for Austin.  On it, I discovered so many things I did not even consider about Austin, that there exists an arts community and a recreational haven with a plethora of things to do besides visit the new Spam Museum.  I simply could not believe the quantity of parks and trails in Austin, probably some of the most per capita of anywhere in the State (28 parks).

Things I really enjoyed about my visit:

  • Vision 2020. I came across many people who knew about, and even bought into, Austin’s Vision 2020.  It’s rare when a planning and community development initiative is well known across a community, and generally supported.
  • Souvenirs.  There was an aisle in the main local grocery store, Hy-Vee, with a label called “canned meats”, perfect for the tourist who wants to get stocked up on rarer flavors of Spam.
  • Walkability.  The community was very walkable, with a highly-developed sidewalk network with few gaps.
  • Car chargers. An EV-owner, I really appreciated the charging stations in downtown Austin, near shops, restaurants and the famous Spam Museum.
  • Diversity.  From my initial walk through an Austin neighborhood, I noticed a lot of diversity.  With almost 4,000 Latino residents, 1,000 black or African Americans, and 600 Asians, Austin is more diverse than the typical Minnesota city by a long shot.  Over 2,600 residents of this city were foreign born, of which over one-in-ten people living in Austin were primarily coming from Latin America.

Minor critiques:

  • Far-flung hotels. The majority of hotel rooms are north of I-90, which is not very enticing to walk downtown, south of the freeway.
  • Hidden public facilities. The newer detention center, which I’m sure cost county taxpayers a great deal, seems to be hidden from the Main Street streetscape with a memorial and shrubbery.
  • Address numbering. The address numbering system is off-kilter.   For example, one of the McDonald’s is located on the 900-block of West Oakland Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, but its address number is 1009.  There are countless examples of this throughout town.

Extraordinarily interesting or uniquely Austin:

  • The city’s name. I found it interesting that Austin was named after Austin Nichols.  The town bears his first name, not his last like the vast majority of other towns named after people.
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    Rydjor Bike Shop

    One of a kind places. The downtown Rydjor Bike Shop and Paramount Theater are among them.  You will know them when you see them.

  • Frank W. Bridges Theater.  There is a theater here apparently at the community college named after someone still living, another rarity.
  • Unique meeting spaces. There’s the Hormel Historic Home, the upstairs of the Austin ArtWorks Center, and the gay-owned Coffee House on Main.  Lots of classy meeting space for your gatherings.
  • The Meeting. Apparently, “The Meeting” takes place on Friday nights at Dusty’s Bar & Lounge, downtown Austin.  It is less a meeting and more an end-of-the-week release for teachers, Hormel workers and other professionals in the community; the clientele was definitely not a typical bar crowd in a small town.  I’m not sure how long this establishment has been around, but “The Meeting” is already a tradition.
  • Barbecue.  Who knew some of the best bar-b-que I have ever come across would be in Austin, Minnesota, and not Kansas City or Austin, Texas, for that matter?   The place is called Piggy Blues Bar-B-Que and it is entirely worth it.
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Upstairs at Austin ArtWorks Center

Similarities with Pine City:

  • County seats. Both cities are county seats of their respective counties, Pine and Mower.    And, both, historically, have had to struggle to maintain county seat status.  Apparently, the Mower County capitol was originally in LeRoy but apparently men on horseback came and stole the county papers during the middle of the night and made Austin the capitol.  In Pine County, Sandstone and more centrally-located Hinckley have unsuccessfully vied to be the county seat in the past.
  • Business loops. Both are located on freeways but also have officially-designated Business Loops running through them.   Only a small handful of cities across the state have business loops:  Albert Lea, Faribault, and Pine City (on I-35); Worthington, Fairmont and Austin (I-90); and Moorhead (I-94).
  • Wikipedia pages. Both Pine City and Austin have stellar Wikipedia pages related to their aesthetics, structure, writing style, coverage and factuality.   The world can learn a lot about these communities virtually and, quite possibly, be inspired to visit.
  • Arts Destinations. It is not hard to access art in either community with active arts organizations galore.

Obviously, on my next visit I’ll be sure to visit the J.C. Hormel Nature Center and the infamous newly-opened SPAM Museum and Visitor Center.  But, for this trip, I was more than satisfied with my time here.  Austin is definitely more than Spam.  Although, I did buy over $70 of the “Miracle in a can” before leaving town.

Nathan Johnson writes about cities and people, and he has been nationally-recognized as an “Outstanding Small Town and Rural Planner”.

Network 2 Learn Training Session Offered by Pine City Chamber

On Wednesday, May 18th the Pine City Area Chamber will host the next Network 2 Learn opportunity.  These training events are provided at a low cost to any business in the region interested in taking part in the event.  This month’s session will focus on “Uncovering Your Business Challenges” and help owners and managers to navigate the growth of their company with successful outcomes.   Contact Becky to get registered by Monday, May 16.05.18BusinessGrowth

East Central Minnesota Pride Moves, Scheduled for June 5

Sunday, June 5, the small town of Pine City, Minn. will again be the setting of one of the few rural LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) pride celebrations in the world, ‘East Central Minnesota Pride.’

2016 marks the twelfth anniversary of this event which offers music, food and a rendezvous of friends, family and community in a new location—downtown Pine City in the Robinson Park town square.  Having moved from across the Snake River in Voyageur Park to the heart of Pine City, this year’s gathering promotes the theme “Pride in the Heart.”

Take it With You Live Radio Theater“We’ve managed to overcome all of the obstacles thrown our way by the people who are less open-minded than us, and yet we’re still here,” said Ariel Dunbar of Pine City, a member of the East Central Minnesota Pride Board.  “We’re still growing stronger”.

Neighberz Band

The Neigherz Band

Headlining Pride is Minneapolis-based, British singer-songwriter Katy Vernon.  Also performing are North Branch-based The Neighberz Band, no stranger to East Central Minnesota, and Duluth-based “Take It With You” live radio theatre.  Twin Cities Public Television’s Val Mondor returns as this year’s emcee and Geo Montecillo will deejay.

This celebration serves the five county region of East Central Minnesota, Pine, Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec and Mille Lacs Counties, and attracts attendees from the hubs of the region such as North Branch (pop. 10,087), and even its tiny villages, like Denham (pop. 34).

Geo Montecillo

Deejay Geo

East Central Minnesota Pride involves many collaborators including East Central Minnesota Men’s Circle, East Central Minnesota Purple Circle, East Central Minnesota chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), Rural Aids Action Network, Rainbow Health Initiative and OutFront Minnesota, among others.

Katy Vernon

Katy Vernon

Several businesses throughout the region support and help sponsor the event as well, and this activity is funded through a grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council through an appropriation from the Minnesota State Legislature with money from the State’s General Fund.

This rural part of Minnesota has seen much change over the last twelve years.  Most recent Census data show that in 2010 Pine City and its surrounding townships have become some of the gay strongholds of Minnesota, with the most same-sex coupled households of anywhere else outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Val Mondor

Val Mondor

East Central Minnesota Pride kicks off the first such celebration in Minnesota each year during what President Obama has declared as “Pride Month,” June.  The other Gay Prides in the state are in Fargo-Moorhead, Duluth-Superior, Mankato, Rochester and the Twin Cities, all of which are in metropolitan areas.

“Our goal has always been to provide caring support and friendship for LGBT people living in the rural area of Minnesota,” said Don Quaintance of Centerville, a founding Pride Board member.  “This event brings people from all walks of life together in friendship, community and progress in understanding.”

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Key Details

  • Date: Sunday, June 5, from Noon to 5p.m.
  • Location: Robinson Park, 200 5th Street SE, Pine City, MN
  • Performing: Katy Vernon, The Neighberz Band and “Take It With You” live radio theatre
  • Admission: $10 suggested donation for food
  • For more information, visit eastcentralminnesotapride.com.

Pride Flier Final.jpg

Pine Technical & Community College now offers MMSC training courses

PINE CITY, Minn. – Motorcyclists, or those looking to get their motorcycle endorsement, have a new training site to go to for Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center rider courses. Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, Minn. started offering the Basic Rider Course, Intermediate Rider Course and Moped Rider Training this season.

Last year, 61 motorcyclists were killed in 57 crashes on Minnesota roads, according to preliminary reports. That’s up from 46 fatalities in 2014. Thirty-three of those crashes were single-vehicle, involving only the motorcycle. All of these crashes are preventable.

Training is vital to motorcycle safety. The Basic Rider Course helps riders with no experience learn essential motorcycle control skills and earn their motorcycle license. The Intermediate Rider Course helps riders build upon their existing skills and help turn them into better riders. Courses start running in May.

Why take the Basic Rider Course?

  • Riders can get a license and learn essential motorcycle control skills in one course.
  • It’s designed for beginning riders with no previous riding experience and helps returning riders.
  • It’s thorough: Riders spend 4.5 hours learning motorcycle basics in the classroom and 10 hours practicing and mastering basic rider techniques on the range.

Why take the Intermediate Rider Course?

  • It covers skills crucial to safety: Control, finesse, counter steering, cornering, swerving and braking.
  • It’s affordable: The course is $55 for five hours of riding time.
  • Practice makes perfect: This is a great opportunity to tune up your skills early on in the riding season.
  • It opens the door for more advanced courses: After you master the Intermediate Rider Course, the MN Advanced and Expert Rider Courses are next on the list. These courses will turn you into an expert rider, using the same techniques designed to train and keep police motor officers safe in any riding or traffic situation.

How do Riders sign up?

Pine City Community is Awarded Top Sponsor for 2015

The Pine City Community Blood Drive received an award for being a Top Sponsor on April 19, 2016 at the Memorial Blood Centers Sponsor Appreciation Luncheon.

‘Pine City Community’ has hosted blood drives with Memorial Blood Centers (MBC) for nearly 12 years.  A variety of local businesses take turns hosting the Memorial Blood Centers bloodmobile in their parking lot.  These businesses include: Chris’ Food Center, Walmart, Frandsen Bank & Trust, Pizza Pub, and the American Legion.  Collectively, the drives donated 274 units of blood during the 2015 year.

“Pine City is a very dedicated community and we have so many very dedicated blood donors who give every chance they get.  As a local non-profit organization, we rely on our local partners to host regular blood drives.  This allows us to collect an adequate supply for patients in our local hospitals.  Blood donors are truly special people for giving of themselves so that others might live,” noted MBC Lead Donor Recruitment Representative, Michele Keil.

“We are very proud to be recognized for donating to the Memorial Blood Centers’ efforts.  It’s a group effort.  A big thank you to Diane Babolik, Linda Defenbaugh and Mary Holetz for their help with calling donors to schedule for the blood drive.  You never know when it could be you or someone you love that needs blood.  Memorial Blood Centers is the sole supplier of blood products to Essentia Health in Sandstone and Duluth, along with Children’s Hospital in the Twin Cities,” explained Dave Hill, Volunteer Coordinator for the Pine City Community Blood Drive.

To schedule a blood donation appointment or to host a local drive, visit http://www.mbc.org.

New Way to Help Minnesota Veterans Get Started in Small Business

Special thanks to the Pine City Yellow Ribbon Community for sharing this news release for posting on the community blog.  If you know of a Minnesota Veteran interested in starting a business, please share this article with them. 

MINNEAPOLIS – For the first time ever, Minnesota’s veterans will have access to a free entrepreneurship training course called Boots to Business Reboot (Reboot). Hosted by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), with help from several local and national partners, Reboot is a two-step training program that helps veterans learn what it takes and prepares them to dive into business ownership.

Minnesota veterans are invited to take the first step of Reboot at a class held on two consecutive Fridays from 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 13 and May 20, 2016, at Metropolitan State University, St. Paul Campus, 700 East 7th Street, Library Rooms 301&302 Saint Paul, MN 55106.

The sessions are free but space is limited and registration is required. Register at: http://boots2business.org/reboot/

Boots to Business has been designed specifically for transitioning Service members. It caters to all pay grades, enlisted and officer, as well as military spouses. Participants include Service members transitioning after initial service commitments all the way through those retiring from a career of service.

In step one of Reboot, veterans will get an overview of business ownership and business plan development, a practical exercise in spotting opportunities and an introduction to available public and private resources.

Veterans who complete this two day course will then be eligible for step two: an eight-week online Foundations of Entrepreneurship course led by the Institute of Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

Partnering with the SBA to present the Boots to Business Reboot program are Metro State University, SCORE, Small Business Development Centers, the Veterans Business Outreach Center and the Women’s Business Centers.