'LIFT'ing up Luverne: Community organization leads development goals
LUVERNE — With two larger cities within a half-hour’s drive of Luverne, the community has long tried to position itself as a destination place with its historical buildings, quaint shops and prairie playground that is the Blue Mounds State Park.
All of these make Luverne special, but perhaps even more so are the people. After all, Luverne contains the word “Luv,” the focal point of a new marketing campaign — Love the Life — that’s hoped to be a welcoming vision not only for community residents but visitors as well.
Several years ago, through community input meetings and a team of dedicated volunteers, Luverne Initiatives For Tomorrow (LIFT) was established as a way to vision for the future and overcome present-day challenges of a deteriorating downtown business district.
From shuttered shops grew ideas on how to revive the community from the very people who call Luverne home.
“All of the community had a part in the visioning process,” said LIFT President Marilyn Bloemendaal. “They were excited about it, anxious to share ideas, and I think it grows out of a great love for Luverne, for the folks that were born and raised here and those who have found it to be their home.”
“The reason we formed the organization is we want this sort of community-driven organization to lead the development of Luverne in the future,” added Jane Wildung-Lanphere, manager of LIFT and executive director of the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the whole issue of seeing a value and a purpose in working together.”
Within the last year, LIFT received 501(c)3 status to be able to accept donations as the group focuses on its long list of projects.
“We really don’t have funds, which makes it difficult to do things, but the energy and volunteerism of those directly involved have made it possible, thus far, to function,” Bloemendaal said.
Since the group officially organized in May 2011, a three-ring binder filled with community ideas and goals has become its road map to the future.
“Lots of ideas came out of that initial meeting,” said Betty Mann, a Rock County Historical Society director and LIFT board member. “It’s come from the community as much as any one of us. We had some ideas, but a lot of these ideas came from people who do not usually speak up — citizens of the city who were concerned about what was happening.”
“LIFT has probably touched every accomplishment that’s been completed or began in Luverne,” added Bloemendaal. “It’s a collaborative effort between LIFT, the city of Luverne and Rock County. Without that collaborative effort, we would not be successful at all. It’s been a great partnership.”
Taking a ride through the community on the Luverne Trolley — a refurbished transit bus — board members point to the success stories achieved and those still in the works.
While Bloemendaal said LIFT talks about the “L” in Luverne — from Interstate 90 north on U.S. 75, and then east on Main Street — the downtown business district is the primary focus of revitalization.
“I think in order for Main Street … to be revitalized and healthy again, it has to have those things that draw people to Luverne,” she said. “Everything we’ve done is an attempt to draw more people to Luverne.”
“If we do nothing, it will be gone,” said Holly Sammons, LIFT board member and director of the Luverne Economic Development Authority.
Downtown, shop owners and investors have been encouraged to spruce up store fronts in hopes of luring new businesses to town. Sammons said LEDA is developing a loan and grant program to assist in that effort.
“We have several buildings on Main Street that are historical,” said Mann.
Among them is the arcade building, which recently went through a facelift, exposing the original quarried stone front and installing large new windows that look out on Main Street. Investors purchased the building and funded the work, while LIFT members are working to bring a new restaurant into the street-level space. The second floor will be dedicated for apartment living.
A couple of blocks away, at the intersection of Main Street and U.S. 75, workers are remodeling a former gas station into a branch location of Worthington-based W-2’s Quality Meats — an addition LIFT members already see as a success. In addition, a new barbershop has already opened, offering hot towel shaves and haircuts. The shop features historic barber chairs and a display of old razors.
Wildung-Lanphere said an outgrowth of LIFT is being able to work with start-up businesses from the beginning — before they approach the city and it becomes public information.
“LIFT can make those connections on a private basis,” she said.
“We can help them find a pathway to the information they’re looking for — be a resource for their exploration process,” added Bloemendaal. “If someone comes to us with a passion, we will do our very best to make sure it happens.”
As the work of building up retail continues, Sammons said the community has already seen success through the Rural Business Enterprise Loan program. Offering a one-third grant and one-third loan with one-third owner equity, the program has funded 13 projects within the L-shaped corridor. Of those, 11 have already been completed.
Along Main Street and the U.S. 75 corridor, new banners installed last year have been part of an overall branding project to define what the community is about.
Key words identified during community meetings were used on the banners to explain why Luverne residents love their town. From “Love the Education” to “Love the Arts,” “Love the History,” and “Love Healthcare,” the banners were strategically placed to highlight the school, hospital, veterans home and historical buildings.
“We identified branding as one of the objectives we needed to do,” Sammons explained. “There’s so many quality of life issues for this small community, you can have a well-rounded lifestyle whether you live here or visit.”
In addition to the banners, the new Love the Life logo was painted on the water tower, added to all official government documents from the city and economic development letterhead to Chamber of Commerce-sponsored brochures. The logo is also prominently featured on the new digital sign along U.S. 75, just north of Interstate 90.
The digital sign and new banners were incorporated into a storm sewer and streets project on U.S. 75 that also included the installation of new light poles.
The entire project created “lots of visual aesthetic improvements to spruce up the look” leading into town, Sammons said.
This summer, a new flag park will be added at the intersection of U.S. 75 and Main Street to welcome visitors to the downtown area. The space will include a flag display, water feature, trees and a walkway and will be funded by the city of Luverne.
Museums, music and trails
Home to a National Guard unit, a clique of World War II veterans, a state veterans home and host of the premiere for Ken Burns’ documentary “The War,” Luverne has a tradition of supporting and recognizing its veterans.
Now, the Herreid Military Museum — located in the historic former jail on the Courthouse Square in Luverne — is in the midst of a third-floor expansion that will help tell the story of Rock County war heroes who served in Korea and Vietnam.
Terrie Gulden, a Vietnam veteran and community volunteer, said a Jeep was rebuilt for the display and a machine gun is on order. He and others are in the midst of writing stories of war from the Korea, Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras.
“We’re also developing a list of guns — replicas to display,” he said.
Meanwhile, a couple of blocks down the street, the historic Hinkly House has undergone a complete renovation and opened its doors to expanded programming. Summer programs, demonstration events and coffee socials are hoped to attract visitors, as well as share Rock County history with local residents.
“Every organization is trying to do more events to draw people in,” added Wildung-Lanphere.
Also on the museum front, the Rock County Historical Society has purchased the former Ford garage along Luverne’s Main Street with plans to renovate it to house the local museum.
The garage is a historical gem itself, built in 1915 and expanded in 1948.
“We’ll have excellent space for exhibits, and it’s handicap-accessible,” said Mann, adding that she hopes the museum will be open in the new location in about a year.
South and east of the soon-to-be new digs for the historical society museum is Redbird Field. Home to ball diamonds and the weekly farmers market in Luverne, the field has been tapped to be the trailhead for a planned Luverne Loop — a biking, walking and running trail envisioned by local resident Preston Ver Meer — that winds through the community and connects to the existing trail leading to the Blue Mounds State Park.
When the project is completed, Sammons said there will be 12 to 13 miles of trail through the community.
“It’s what’s needed to pull people into Luverne,” she said, adding that the Luverne City Council has designated $220,000 each year for the next five years to see the trail become a reality. Grants are hoped to also be a part of the equation.
“The more we get through grants, the quicker it will be built,” Sammons said.
At this point, the plan is to complete the trail in two-mile increments.
“The best-case scenario is we can get a grant and have the first phase done in two to three years,” Sammons said. “It could be five to 10 years out, realistically (to complete the trail).”
In addition to expanding trails, LIFT is also hoping to expand the Luverne Area Aquatics and Fitness facility to create more space for intramural basketball, racquetball and an indoor walking track.
Creating space for exercise is just one way in which Luverne’s LIFT is promoting a better lifestyle. Another is through promotion of the arts and music.
In its second year, Luverne Street Music — established in a collaborative effort to meet the needs of the community — has grown immensely. Today, there are more than 70 students in the program, which offers a variety of musical lessons and 18 instructors. They have even formed their own Luverne Chamber Orchestra.
Wildung-Lanphere said the goal of Luverne Street Music is to provide access to professional training so people wouldn’t have to go out of town.
Luverne has always been home to a variety of community events, from its Buffalo Days celebration in early June to the Tri-State Band Festival in September. Those popular events will continue, with several new activities planned for 2014.
On June 15, the community will host participants of the Jim Klobuchar Bike Ride; and then will welcome the Minnesota State Legion Baseball tournament July 31-Aug. 3, with an estimated 1,500 people coming to town.
The town will follow up the Legion tourney with Cardinal Pride weekend on Aug. 15-17. Said Wilduung-Lanphere, “It’s like a school reunion, but it’s for the community.”
The event will include a golf tournament, Luverne School, Hinkly House and Herreid Military Museum open houses, a 50th anniversary showing of the Luverne High School 1964 State Basketball championship, Cardinal Strut 5K Run and 1-mile walk and a performance of “Growing Up On a Gravel Road” (Luverne’s version of “A Prairie Home Companion”).
Capping off the three days of festivities will be a visit from native son and famed wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg. He will participate in Brunch at the Bluestem, host a program at the Palace Theatre to showcase his photography with a live performance by folksinger and acoustic performer Michael Monroe, and host Brule on the Prairie at the Touch The Sky Prairie north of Luverne.
“Part of the enthusiasm for things going on in Luverne has been creating the opportunity to welcome special events,” Wildung-Lanphere said, adding that the events will provide an avenue to highlight the work done to revitalize the community.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.