Wildung goes from her own business to the Luverne Area Chamber

LUVERNE -- When Jane Wildung decided to close her business in early 2007, she had no idea what she would do once the doors were officially closed. The Luverne Style Shop had been a part of the family for three generations -- opened in 1938 by her...

LUVERNE -- When Jane Wildung decided to close her business in early 2007, she had no idea what she would do once the doors were officially closed. The Luverne Style Shop had been a part of the family for three generations -- opened in 1938 by her paternal grandmother, operated by her father for a time after that and, for 35 years, shared by Jane and her mother, Audrey.

But it seems when one door closes, another one opens.

For Wildung, it meant a transition from selling women's clothing in a corner store on Main Street to selling the community to visitors, potential new businesses and home-seekers.

Born and raised in Luverne, Wildung took the reigns of the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 2, after nearly a month working under the wings of now-retired chamber director Dave Smith.

"It's totally different from what I did before," Wildung said of her new post. "I really didn't want to go back into retail. I think the memories would have been too difficult."


It seemed an ideal time for Wildung to make her career change at the beginning of the year. Buffalo Days and the Tri-State Band Festival -- two of the community's largest celebrations -- were still months away, and Wildung said it was time, financially, to get back to work to put bread on the table.

Two public roles

While Wildung is quite new to the position of the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce director, she's far from unknown in the community and Rock County.

With the exception of a year spent at South Dakota State University and a few years at the University of Minnesota, where she graduated with a degree in business, Luverne has been her home.

It may not have been the plan she intended while in high school, but Wildung believes things happen for a reason.

She was a senior in high school when her dad, Robert, died at the age of 50. Her mom, whose life was focused on raising four children -- Jane was the oldest, the youngest was 9 -- suddenly faced owning a business without any experience working in the store.

"After that happened, I sort of think my life plan just changed, just to react to the situation we were in," she said. "I felt kind of responsible to come back and help and make sure (my siblings) had an opportunity to go to college, too.

"I came back here, and it ended up being a good thing for my life," she continued. "I got sucked into small town (life) ... the friendships, getting involved and being able to do a big variety of things."


Wildung operated the store with her mother, and they continued as business partners after Jane purchased the business in 1993. By then, she was not only known as a local businesswoman, but a county commissioner as well. She was elected to the post in 1989 and represents District 5, which encompasses Luverne and part of Luverne Township.

"The county board has been very supportive," said Wildung who, because of her full-time job, was allowed to cover most of the evening meetings.

"It was a real opportunity for me," she said about serving as a county commissioner. "I don't have a whole lot of talents. I'm not artsy, and I'm not musical, but I like to see sort of a broad scope of changes."

Serving as a commissioner, she said, has given her an appreciation for "all the hard work that people do in order to care for other people."

It's also made her realize that no matter what decisions are made, not everyone is going to be happy.

"I think government, in any form, whether it's school or the city or the county or the state or federal government, everybody takes ownership of it," she said. "There's a high expectation. Everybody wants things done the way they think it should be done.

"If we can make most people content with what the choices have been, that's a true success," she added.

The biggest challenge of her career as a county commissioner was working out a law enforcement issue with the city a few years back.


"We had challenges communicating with the City of Luverne," she said. "That's world famous. It was a period of lack of understanding and interpretation, but things are better."

As for the highlight of her career, Wildung paused to reflect on 19 years of service.

"I think as a county board we've made a lot of good decisions," she said. "I think over the years the county board has done a wonderful job hiring staff. We've got great staff, speaking of department heads."

Among recent county projects of the county are the construction of a new law enforcement center and oversight of the renovations to the former law enforcement center, which is slated to be completed this summer. It will reopen as a heritage center.

"That building was a challenge, and I never would have dreamed it's going to end up the way it will be," Wildung said.

The Heritage Center will provide visitors with an interpretation of history, displaying borrowed items from the Historical Society in Luverne.

Perhaps one day, Wildung will be able to read about her grandfather, a veteran of World War I from Rock County, and her father, who served in World War II.

After her father's death, Wildung made sure her three younger siblings all made it through college. One of her sisters now serves as a corporate attorney, while the other is vice president of public relations for an advertising firm. Her brother works in computer sales. All three live in the Twin Cities.


And Wildung, who spent much of her life working with and watching over her mother, is now engaged to be married. She and Larry Lanphere of Luverne are planning a late summer wedding.

"It's pretty exciting," Wildung said. "I've never been engaged before."

With a pending marriage and a new career path, Wildung is busily making plans for the future.

"We have new initiatives to talk about," she said of the chamber. "We have great opportunities coming."

'Pie in the sky'

While Wildung's first few months as chamber director spanned a quieter time of the year for tourism, she undoubtedly hit the ground running.

Tough economic times across the country have also made their mark on Luverne, as several downtown businesses and a few highway restaurants have closed in the last year.

Wildung hopes to see those storefronts filled once again, and has taken steps to brainstorm and plan with community leaders on the best way to approach the issue.


"We're trying to put a pitch together ... that we would become a destination shopping place," said Wildung.

The vision is to lure outlet shops into Luverne's downtown to create a mixed retail setting -- existing Mom & Pop stores next door to say a Wilson's Leather outlet, she added.

"The outlet stores would be a hook to get people to come here," said Wildung of the shops that offer 40 percent off retail and, because they would be in Minnesota, wouldn't have a sales tax on clothing.

"Sioux Falls cannot have any outlet shopping," she said. "There are 500 retail stores in proposal for development on the east side of Sioux Falls -- 18 miles from Luverne."

Wildung said the Sanford Hospital expansion in Sioux Falls, along with the potential for a major pipeline to be constructed through eastern South Dakota, will create higher paying jobs and bring more people to the region. Offering them outlet shopping would bring more people to Luverne.

"It's a pie-in-the-sky idea," said Wildung.

Maybe not.

Luverne was featured in the Ken Burns' documentary, "The War" in 2007, making it a household name for viewers.


"We had a billion dollars in free advertising with 'The War,'" said Wildung. "We have that notoriety. We have 'The War,' Jim Brandenburg, Blue Mound State Park, the hospital, an expanded bike trail, the Palace Theater, a Veteran's Memorial, (soon-to-be) Heritage Museum and Historical society ... among the strong businesses we have.

"We have a claim that everybody knows you, you do business on a handshake," she added. "You have to have a dream, and then you try to make a sales pitch."

In the first step toward reaching its dream, the Chamber is working with an individual from Southwest State University on a proposal for a retail revitalization project. Those efforts, in addition to some connections with a community benefactor, may lead Luverne on the path toward becoming southwest Minnesota's new shopping mecca someday.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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