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Uniting Communities Through Placemaking Projects

sprig by Posted in Grants, Rural Placemaking, Small Communities

One mom’s mission to give Goodland Township’s gathering space a boost grew to a community collaboration

Sarah Detjen didn’t set out to oversee a major community construction project. But when she began talking about rebuilding her local park, her vision and determination drew friends, neighbors and strangers to the project, building back the park better than ever.

The playground and surrounding baseball fields and community space in Goodland Township, 20 miles east of Grand Rapids, were deeply loved and frequently used by its 469 residents, but the decades-old facilities had long been in need of repair.

Detjen’s own children had enjoyed the amenities when they were small but it had been many years since the spot was a regular part of their social life. A good friend spearheaded the most recent ballfield renovation in 2016. That dear friend died suddenly in a car accident in 2020, creating a clearer role for Detjen.

“I was going to finish what she started,” Detjen told us.

She didn’t know then that her mission to give Goodland a fun, safe space to gather with friends and families would snowball into a township’s collaborative investment in community.

“I was willing to do anything,” she said of getting the project up and running. “And when I set my mind to something, I finish it.”

Detjen began by broaching the subject with her husband, Dave, a member of the  township’s board of supervisors. He loved the idea of building a new park and encouraged Sarah to bring the proposal to a township meeting. The project got a fast approval. After the meeting, Dave gave his wife a playground equipment catalog.

“I thought, ‘It’s a sign. I have to do this now,’” Detjen said.

There was just one problem: Playground equipment is incredibly expensive. Even when an entire township is on board with a project, it can’t move forward if the funding isn’t there. Detjen would need more help — and more funds. She reached out to Blandin Foundation. Linda Gibeau, grants program officer for small communities, connected Detjen with a second Sarah: Sarah Carling, of Community Economic Development Association (CEDA). The organization works with Itasca Economic Development Corporation, Goodland Township’s local economic development entity

“Sarah [Carling] made me believe that this was really going to happen,” Detjen said. “She was super helpful with where to start. When we secured the first grant I thought, ‘Oh, this is really happening! I called everyone because I was so excited. I’m not a grant writer, so for us to get a grant, it was so exciting.”

That first grant came from MNDOT’s Transportation Economic Development Program. Detjen quickly became the new park’s unofficial project manager, applying for additional funding support, attending countless meetings, coordinating with the Goodland Township Board to ensure compliance with grant requirements, handling any necessary paperwork and securing letters of support from community members. The hard work paid off. One grant approval led to another, then another.

“When we didn’t get [a grant], another one would come through,” she said. “When you don’t get one, you get bummed. But it felt like whenever we got a no, we got a yes the same day.”

Blandin Foundation contributed $100,000 toward the Goodland Township project in the form of one of our 2022 Small Communities Development Grants, funding specific for resources, skills and systems changes in rural Minnesota’s smallest towns.

Funding efforts didn’t stop there, though. As more grants came through (see below), and the project’s fundraising target became more and more within reach, Goodland Township residents stepped up to help their neighbors realize their goal of a new community park. A local church put out a bucket with the project information at their annual Thanksgiving meal. A local grocery store did the same. A T-shirt design contest got the township’s younger residents involved. Contributions came in from the Goodland Legion, Pengilly Booster Club, Keewatin Riders and Goodland Senior Club. Detjen recruited community members and volunteer firefighters to facilitate a pizza fundraiser that led to two larger grants from  Minnesota Power and Essentia Health.

“They heard about the project and reached out to me, inviting our application,” Detjen said. “I wouldn’t have even known about these grants [otherwise]. That was pretty cool.”

“I’m inspired by Sarah and the leaders of Goodland Township,” Gibeau said. “They show the perseverance to mobilize the resources and volunteers to bring ideas to reality,” said Blandin Foundation’s Gibeau. “The community and in-kind support is amazing – I loved seeing the township fundraisers like the donation jar at Fred’s Store, and the pizza and T-shirt sales. It’s the kind of ‘for-us, by-us’ philanthropy that rural does so well.”

The day Goodland Township broke ground on the new park, volunteers — including local contractors donating their heavy equipment and expertise — showed up to help build. Members of the Goodland Community Church and the Rural Compassion team  joined the construction efforts. The groundbreaking became its own community-wide event, followed by a luncheon for participants at the community center.

Today, the park provides a vibrant place for Goodland families to gather for simple afternoon playdates, family picnics or birthday parties. Playground equipment was updated to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, ensuring all visitors can enjoy the facilities.The baseball fields and community center are open to the public. The community center is also available to rent for private events. A coming second phase of the project aims to update the park’s pavilion: fixing its cracked cement, adding a grill, and putting final touches on the baseball fields.

“We’re meeting the need of the community,” said Charles Miller, chair of the Goodland Township Board. “It’s one thing for people to pay taxes. It’s another thing to see what they are paying for. We’re providing them things they will use and enjoy. And the more players you have involved, the more likely the success of the project.”

For foundations like Blandin and any other organization or municipality looking to invigorate their community, the new Goodland Township park is a perfect example of rural placemaking — bolstering community resources to help its residents feel more connected, invested and proud of where they live.

“When you get a major player involved like Blandin and IRRRB, that anchors the project,” Miller said. “It helps us attract other funds. Seed money assures people in our project and in its success.”

“Start planning early,” Detjen said of everything she learned over the course of the project’s first phase. “Once you have the idea and the okay, things will move fast. But also: Big things take time … going to many meetings, getting approvals, seeking community input. Be patient and persistent.”

About Blandin Foundation Grantmaking

As a rural-based foundation and one of few in the nation devoted exclusively to rural needs, we have shifted our strategic grantmaking to better meet rural Minnesota’s urgent challenges. Our funding focuses on community wealth building, rural placemaking and small communities, with particular emphasis on our home giving area of Itasca County. In 2022 when Goodland Township received a boost grant, we awarded 103 grants and more than $9.3 million.

Our small communities grants specifically seek to reach small, often overlooked places, to help them meet their local needs. As Goodland Township demonstrated, our small communities grants are built on the pride rural residents feel for their communities. When people work together to solve community issues, they create trust, ownership and buy-in which translate to success with completing projects and initiatives, and ultimately strengthen the community. Learn more about our new strategic direction.

Goodland Township Park Funding Provided By

Blandin Foundation

Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board

Goodland Township

Nashwauk-Keewatin Community Foundation
$9,000 ($7,000 for park and $2,000 for ball field)

Minnesota Twins

Essentia Health

Goodland Senior Club

Minnesota Power

Pizza Fundraiser

Keewatin American Legion Riders

Pengilly Booster Club

Fred’s Store donation bucket

Community Fundraiser

Goodland Legion

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