Rushford, Minnesota, or Trading Places Part 2

From Thursday to Saturday of last week, I joined other members of the Minnesota Design Team for a Rushford project in Rushford, Minnesota.  The Design Team is a volunteer organization of planners of every stripe – our team included architects, hydrologists, a transportation planner, urban designers, public finance and economic development consultants. 

The process is akin to an extended charrette based on a volume of input received from community residents.  The goal is to give additional tools and ideas to towns across Minnesota, which they can tailor and implement to improve the economic climate, physical design and political efficacy of their community.  It’s worked statewide since 1983.

For most readers, Rushford’s name will conjur images of the flash flooding that devastated the town and surrounding region in August, 2007.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presented recent findings suggesting the rainfall (in excess of 17 inches in areas of the watershed) approximated a “500-year flood” level.  Collecting from a large area, the water converged on Rushford, flowing at over five times its usual volume and reaching a rate of 38,000 cubic feet per second.  The impact of water that topped over levees and was trapped in town by the remainder of the dike system, has been tremendous.

The financial impact of the flood will exert a toll on Rushford for years to come.  Many homeowners did not carry flood insurance, noting its cost.  Today, mortgages remain due while some properties are now a lot with a hole in the ground, the homes having been demolished and removed.  The state of recovery for businesses appears to have benefited from a state-appropriated $35 million dedicated to relief for damaged businesses across southeast Minnesota. 

Still, citizens emphasized to us that Rushford, a settlement since the 1850s, has a long history of which the flood is just one recent chapter.  The physical attributes of the place are striking – the confluence of the Root River and Rush Creek, the high bluffs typical of the geologic form known as the Driftless Area in southeast Minnesota, western Wisconsin and northeast Iowa. 

Other strengths come to mind.  School enrollment has diminished modestly but is projected to be stable in the next 5-10 years.  Tax base has increased over 10% annually since 1999.  A company called Rushford Hypersonic recently announced a partnership with the University of Minnesota to develop nanotechnology products from University research and patents.  From one large coop employer in town, I heard words I don’t often hear:  “We have adequate access to a pool of skilled workers.”  Each of these trends is significant and positive.

Rushford and Washington, D.C. – the first subject in this series – are more different than they are alike.  However, one of the key themes I discussed in the last post was the need for public and private entities to invest together in the success of places and the people who create them.  Rushford is a great example of a community prepared to distinguish itself through investment of financial and sweat equity.  My chief hope, beyond their success, is that these investments address safeguarding the town from future flooding.