Why I Am Reclaiming Community

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

Photo April B Photography

I am the founder of Reclaim Community, a nonprofit based in Jasper — a Minnesota town of about 600 people, 35 miles from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We are renovating two large Sioux Quartzite buildings.

Understanding the “why” of a mission is an important part of grassroots organizing. I think for me it was a reaction to growing up in poverty, wearing Goodwill clothing, and knowing we were different because we did not have a TV, furnace, and working plumbing for periods of time. Scarcity was the story of a lot of rural America in that time.

This also meant I was able to see the possibilities and be willing to take bigger risks — to try to make something out of nothing. Today, I want to help find solutions to make Jasper sustainable again, after the economic crisis of the 1980s.

Despite the poverty, growing up seven miles into the country, it was a great overall experience being a kid in Jasper. Relaxed, ordinary, yet special. Jasper has a strong commitment to volunteerism. Nearly every service in town is run by volunteers: the Lions Club, the Economic Development Corporation, the Jasper Ambulance, theFire Department, and the Historical Society.

We are trying to start a new chapter for a town that gave a warm community environment to so many people.

The History of a Place

I have always been interested in history. I listened to the reminiscing stories at family reunions. I volunteered at a local museum when I was a kid. I appreciated the artistry and beauty of historic architecture.

As a youth, I went to France several times and was transfixed at the juxtaposition of the ancient world rising to meet the modern. Walking up castle staircases, I imagined the people whose feet had worn the grooves in stone steps over the previous 500 years.

A connection to place over time gives us a sense of belonging. We all have a place that matters to us — a grandparent’s house, summer camp, school — and those feelings and memories we have of it are how we relate to each other. A shared sense of place is lost when we lose our places. To understand that, listen to anyone who has been forcibly removed from their home.

Jasper’s school was built in 1911. The last high school graduating class was 1993, when the district consolidated with a neighboring area. The town’s elementary school closed in 2001. One by one, the businesses downtown began shuttering. Buildings that had housed dozens of enterprises over the years started to go dark.

I reject the idea that old is useless. These buildings are the vehicle to create opportunities for a new generation of entrepreneurs. They are an opportunity for creativity, innovation, and community- based solutions to problems.

I also believe it is a responsibility for us to conserve materials and resources. It is an absolute travesty that we do not encourage more rehabilitation and prevent more demolition than we do — that is wasteful in every way. Financially, environmentally, and culturally, these buildings are solutions to overcome decline and disinvestment.

Old buildings are at least as energy efficient as new construction when retrofitted with updated mechanicals. They are less expensive to maintain than building the same thing anew. They are made of better materials with greater quality handicraft. These mature structures are able to last 50 to 80 years between renovations, compared to the average 40 years for those built after 1950.

Typically communities make decisions based on myths — “too big, too expensive” — and don’t spend money on old buildings. Renovating creates more jobs than new construction, because it invests more in labor than materials. The data is there to support that, but the knowledge is not, because most of our leaders are not preservationists or economists.

Current Status

Five years ago I launched a crowdfunding effort that raised $40,000 in six weeks. We started a nonprofit, fiscally sponsored by Rethos (formerly Preservation Alliance of MN). We bought the Jasper school in an auction in 2015 for $25,000, in order to save it and make some temporary repairs. We got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places to qualify for grants and bring it back into occupancy condition.

The work to renovate these two buildings has been chugging along as funds permit ever since, scraping by with hard work from fantastic, visionary people who believe in a new future for our town. We are about 75 percent of the way through a complete building assessment to plan the repairs and updates.

We started out trying to save one building, and are now working on two. In 2018, we purchased an old mercantile and concert hall on Main Street that was endangered by demolition. To date we have raised over $148,000 in grants and somewhere over $120,000 in private donations.

It will take 15 years and probably a solid $5 million in investment, but when you have a 70,000 square foot building that would cost $35 million to erect from scratch — and a community that needs to build more wealth — it is the best option for a good return on investment.

The projections to tear down Jasper School were $750,000. For $1 million in investment, a significant portion of the building can be occupied, also bringing in tax revenue rather than leaving simply a bare lot. In a county with 9,300 people, that is an investment of $108 per person.

What’s Next?

As the buildings are rehabilitated, the community will provide the input about what uses best suit their needs. A co-op grocery store? A coffee shop/thrift bookstore? A retreat center with artists-in-residence? A performing arts space to host concerts, plays, dances, exercise classes, movies, sports practices, art fairs, flea markets? A membership maker-space with a wood shop and tools? A brewery?

“Adaptive reuse” is the term for incremental, cost- effective, and conservationist design that reimagines places. Why spend a lot of money to strip down our spaces when you can invest in places that provide a sense of belonging? This is a reset button for entire towns.

That is what we are doing in Jasper. For decades, money has been leaving our community. We are going to bring it back.

Elicia Kortus (she/her) is a backyard chicken keeper, vintage furniture refurbisher, and eternal optimist who believes collaborative community-led action is the next societal evolution.

Legislative Note

The Historic tax credit is up for a vote this year in the omnibus bill. It is in danger of not passing. Support this credit here.

Our project would not be as viable if it were located just four miles across the border in South Dakota, because the state does not fund much historic preservation and it is extremely difficult to preserve buildings. It is powerful that Minnesota has chosen a more progressive approach. It is exactly what rural communities like Jasper need in order to attract the capital necessary.

From “Reclaim Minnesota” fact sheet: “The greenest building is the one that is already built. Older retrofitted buildings have 50-80 year lifespan vs 30-40 for new construction. Buildings built prior to the 1960’s, when retrofitted, are more energy efficient than their modern counterparts.”

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