Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
— Alice in Wonderland
You don’t need to travel far from the city of Owatonna to encounter communities that are slowly fading away. You’ve all seen them: Towns with main streets full of empty buildings and empty streets. Places with no grocery stores or restaurants; communities where schools have consolidated and with that the town has lost much of its identity.
Of course, there are external factors, many of them economic, that have come in to play in these dying towns. But one also can’t help but wonder, “If the community had seen this bleak future coming, would they have done anything differently?”
Nobel Prize winner Dennis Gabor once said that “The Future cannot be predicted. But futures can be created.”
I am one of the 24 Owatonna Forward stewards. For the last 18 months, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside gifted and talented individuals who care about Owatonna’s future. Each steward has volunteered to serve in this way because they believe that Owatonna is at a crossroads, and in a unique position; unique because we can have the opportunity to choose growth and vitality as our future.
The stewards took over a year to do intentional listening to the community in forums, and through an extensive community survey. Over 2,600 people from every economic, age and ethnic group participated. After the data was sifted, a very clear truth emerged.
Owatonna is choosing to grow. Our community wants to remain vibrant, dynamic and rich in opportunity for all our people. Owatonna cares about its future. It’s important to note that Owatonna Forward’s recommendations weren’t created by the stewards. They come straight from the community data. Owatonna Forward is just telling you, what you said.
The data is clear that the community supports investment: Investment in its core downtown area; investment in its beautiful parks and recreation programs; investment in the school system; and investment in housing.
If we invest, our people will be better served, and the community will grow. Our employers will be able to attract and retain new employees. The population will increase, and the financial costs will be shared with a larger tax base. Owatonna will begin a pattern of growth, not of decline.
Will there be a short-term cost? Of course. That is the nature of investment. And there will be those individuals who are afraid to invest. But we can look at other communities in southern Minnesota who have chosen not to invest, and we can see the cost of those decisions.
I am glad to live in a place that believes in its future. We get to choose that future. And I am thankful to be surrounded by people who want to move Owatonna forward.
The Rev. Todd Buegler is one of the Owatonna Forward stewards. He and his wife, Lori have two teenage boys in the Owatonna schools. Todd serves as the senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna.