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"Edge" communities: 20 yrs of collaboration

North-central Minnesota community leaders reframe community, builds trust and leverage strengths

On the leading edge of vibrancy

Edge of the Wilderness communities celebrate 20 years of collaboration


The communities of Effie, Bigfork and Marcell have called themselves “Edge of the Wilderness” for more than 20 years.

But before that, the communities always seemed to be on the edge of an argument.

“There were some intense rivalries between the towns,” recalled John Nathe of Bigfork. “It felt like the Mason-Dixon line between Bigfork and Effie. There was tension between Bigfork and Marcell because of the hospital district. Bigfork was in the center of the community, but we didn’t act as a community.”

It was during that time that four area residents (Nathe, Jeff Ortman, Chris Johnson, and Liz Latterel) were invited to attend the Blandin Community Leadership Program (BCLP). During the intense week of leadership training, the group learned to identify what their communities needed, and learned to network and find support.

“We knew if we were going to move forward as a community, we were going to have to do it together,” Nathe said.

Working together

The Blandin Community Leadership Program grads called a series of meetings of the three communities starting in 1986. The goal: Talking about the common issues facing them and how they could work together.

“We had to work through all the myths and rumors that were out there and get everyone calmed down so that we could try to get things done,” Nathe said. “And slowly, it took hold, little by little.” The communities formed the North Itasca Joint Powers Board, one of the first joint powers agreements in the county.

“We had a town hall that was full of people,” Nathe recalled. “The enthusiasm was all there, and there was a push to create an identity. There were concerns that Grand Rapids seemed to get all the publicity. They weren’t hoggish about it, but we just felt like we needed to be recognized as a destination, too.”

After a community-wide contest was held, the region was named “Edge ofthe Wilderness.”

“It was a name that we could all identify with,” said Linda Pigman,a 1988 BCLP alum. “People were excited about it. They wanted to use it everywhere. It was an exciting time.”

Over the next 20 years, the community worked to develop the Edge of the Wilderness not just as a name, but as a destination, complete with a golf course, the Bigfork Valley Hospital and Clinic campus, the Marcell Family Center, and The Edge Center for the Arts. Three small towns, once struggling, now showed a new vibrancy.

“We really got to know each other. And we learned that if you put someone to work doing something they thoroughly enjoy, they’ll give it their all,” Pigman said. “You just have to find what they can contribute and make them happy and good things happen.”

But keeping momentum going wasn’t always easy.

“We got tired, but we still tried to keep our fingers in it. Jeff (Ortman) really kept things going,” Nathe said. “He made sure things kept moving forward. When our successors (new graduates of BCLP) came back, we would try to sit down with them and give them our history and pass the torch to them. We wanted to capture their enthusiasm and help them learn from our mistakes.” Nathe said.

The Edge Center for the Arts, a project led by BCLP alum Patty Feld was really the culmination of more than a decade of working together. He recalls being at a meeting in Marcell, and a discussion about contributing to The Edge Center for the Arts came up. In years past, any request for money from an organization in Bigfork would have been met with opposition in Marcell.

“Suddenly all of these people in the audience stepped forward and said that they supported it,” Nathe said. “They said ‘I depend on the hospital in that community’ or ‘my kids are in dance classes over there.’ These people who used to be so anti-Bigfork saw what these kinds of things were doing for the entire community – what it meant to them. And they wanted to support it.

“It took 10 to 15 years, but that meeting was like ‘Wow.’ It’s really happening. This is what we were trying to do,” Nathe said, “The thing that people have to realize is that it takes a long time to do these things. It’s not a Jaycees or Lions thing, or one event and that’s it. We had a different agenda.”

Pigman agreed. “We really started to look at the big picture,” she said. “Blandin played a huge role in helping us do that. It’s where it all began.”

She said there is a sense of accomplishment and pride in the Edge of the Wilderness. “We’re a small community,” Pigman said. “We’re a place that doesn’t want to be invaded, but we don’t want people to feel uninvited. I think we’ve learned you really can grow your own metropolis if you want to.”

Since 1990, Blandin Foundation has awarded more than $3.1 million in grants to Edge of the Wilderness communities,and held a community listening session in the area earlier this year. In 2013, a team of about two dozen residents will participate in the Blandin Community Leadership Program.

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