When Nicole Zempel became Director of the Granite Falls Chamber of Commerce in 2008 she recalled a general community sentiment that revolved around the idea that downtown Granite Falls was quickly dying.
Since then, the community has experienced a notable revival, drawing in and establishing new businesses and initiatives that have paralleled the Chamber’s ascension. And now, six years later, the City of Granite Falls has become a model city for concepts of rural revitalization, and Chambers as well as other organizations across the state are looking to this riverside city to see how it is done.
“Other Chambers are asking how we do things in Granite Falls––how we made this or that work, and can I offer specifics. The one thing I say is key is: community involvement––and the level to which it exists here in Granite Falls is what’s pushed everything forward,” she said. “No amount of specifics mean anything unless you have people willing to come together,” she continued. “Not for personal gain, not for organizational gain, but for the good of the community.”
While Zempel is quick to give credit to the multitude of individual and group efforts that have lent themselves to downtown’s transformation, perhaps no one in Granite Falls has embodied and served as a more appropriate face for the change than the director herself. With an ever-effervescent demeanor and all-inclusive attitude she developed strategic partnerships both locally and regionally that, together, have served to shine a light on the areas environmental, art and historic assets to the benefit of downtown foot traffic and overall economic activity.
The catalyzing agent
Clearing out her desk this past week, Zempel talked about her departure as feeling bitter-sweet, acknowledging her excitement for that which is on the horizon as well as the natural trepidation that comes from shutting the door on a period of life deemed one of her most fulfilling. Looking back, she recalled her first speaking engagement as Chamber Director, and how in hindsight it would foreshadow much of what was to come.
“My first ‘gig’ as Chamber Director was to speak at a Kiwanis program. I remember I had been on the job less than a week, and basically the position was mine to tailor as I deemed fit,” she said. “Having nothing to go on, only what I had hoped to bring to the position, I brought a book for everyone called “Bright Stars,” and read several passages. It was all about how infusing the arts in rural communities has the power to bring about revival.”
At the time, such a concept seemed foreign to a vast majority of community residents, and in the early goings Zempel recalled receiving guff from residents and business owners who were unable to see how the Chamber’s focus on arts, the Minnesota River, and like resources, had anything to do with economic development.
Page 2 of 3 - Most contentious, but intimately tied to these endeavors as a catalyzing agent was the savior and re-purposing of the K.K. Berge building.
Set for demolition in 2008 due to its existence in the 100 year flood plain, Zempel was a torchbearer in a Granite Falls Riverfront Revitalization (GFRR) initiative that partnered with the Granite Falls City Council to see the building flood proofed and repurposed, allowing it to become the eventual home of the newly formed GFRR and Granite Area Arts Council (GAAC) non-profits as well as the Chamber of Commerce and a Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) satellite office.
All told, it was a four year endeavor that never would have been realized without the Chamber Director. GFRR members recall how the entire non-profit had come to a point where they were ready to throw in the towel on the project and it was Zempel’s lone unwaivering will that moved the organization over a then seemingly impossible hurdle.
“Nicole was our cheerleader that kept us going through many difficult challenges,” recalled GFRR Board Chair Steve Virnig. “I fully believe the building would not have been saved without her involvement.”
Work, or sink together
While the K.K. Berge building was a major benchmark, Zempel realized a number of other successes during the four years that GFRR worked to see the building saved. Some of the notable projects she helped to facilitate included river cleanups, in conjunction with CURE; Applefest, in partnership with the (now disbanded) Granite Grandeurs; documentaries on the Upper Sioux Agency State Park and on Volstead and Prohibition, in tandem with Pioneer Public Television; and the Meander Kick-Off, with the aid of the Upper Minnesota River Development Commission.
I think Nicole’s had a real positive impact, particularly working with other organizations,” said Chamber Board member Greg Holmstrom. “I think she’s been real interested in the tourism aspect too. People often forget it, but tourism is business. Supporting your community is business ... Either you work together or you sink together.”
While many of the projects fell into Zempel’s proverbial lap, it was the Chamber Director who was able to recognize their potential and generate the necessary community moral and financial support to bring them into reality. Other organizations that have highlighted the Chamber’s work or joined in cooperative efforts include Minnesota Public Radio, the Southwest Initiative Foundation and the University of Minnesota Extension.
But Zempel excelled with more traditional Chamber endeavors during this period as well, increasing the number of Chamber members by 50 percent, generating successful business focused initiatives such as her “Shop Local” and “Turning Vacant Places to Spaces” campaign as well as a reinvigoration of the Chamber Banquet, which went from years of declining involvement and lucky to break-even ticket sales, to a community highlight that generates a few thousand dollars of profit.
Page 3 of 3 - “The Chamber Board deserves a lot of credit for their support in all of the Chamber’s successes,” said Zempel. “The group drummed up support and interests and Greg [Holmstrom] deserves particular mention for getting us great deals on high quality performance acts for the annual banquet.”
Spreading her wings
Most recently, Zempel worked to continue and evolve such community initiatives while increasingly becoming in demand as a speaker, whether it be Stacy Hinz sixth grade class in regard to civic involvement or at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Small Towns annual symposium where she enlightened attendees to concepts that gestate rural revitalization.
Just as “Bright Stars” foreshadowed the direction of work the past six years at the Chamber of Commerce, Zempel’s most recent speaking engagements seem to elude to the next stage in her vocation. Last year she picked up a second job as manager of the Riverview Apartments and her intention is to maintain the position at the complex while dropping her directorship to allow more time to be devoted to writing and speaking opportunities.
Looking back at all the positive energy that has been generated during her time as Director, to say simply that “Zempel will be missed,” seems a severe understatement. Then again, she is the first to note that it’s not as if she is leaving the community, just expanding her sphere of influence.
Spreading her wings, Zempel is sure to not only realize personal success, but that which will pay dividends to Granite Falls by creating and growing new and existing relationships from where ideas can be obtained for unique initiatives and collaborations bound to provide mutual benefits locally and regionally.
"I've come to realize that it's all about taking a good look around, getting to know the people, and understand the community dynamics, which are different everywhere,” said Zempel. “Through this, one is able to identify voids or needs as starting points for collaborative efforts that help to lay a foundation for future sustainability rather than a temporary band-aid. It is the establishment of just such a foundation that I hope to have been a part of, and continue to build on, here in Granite Falls.