Along Main Streets in small towns across Minnesota, communities can find themselves with empty storefronts and vacant historic buildings mixed in among vibrant local businesses. Figuring out how to renovate and find new uses for these spaces can be a daunting and challenging task.

Instead of viewing vacant space as a liability, a team of artists and designers in Southwest Minnesota is encouraging towns to turn these spaces into community assets. Vacant space can be a canvas used by communities to make connections, engage residents and reimagine what is possible.

That is the vision of an interactive new guide: Creative Community Development: A Resource Guide for Artist-led Development of Vacant Spaces in Southwest MN (z.umn.edu/SouthwestMNCCD G), released in summer 2020. The how-to guide provides examples and resources for engaging local artists in a process of redesigning and reactivating empty Main Street buildings.

“We may sometimes have a hard time visualizing a future that is brighter than what some of us may remember or may be experiencing. This guide shows us there is an opportunity to visualize something new and interesting in those vacant spaces,” said Anne Dybsetter, executive director of the University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP). Ashley Hanson, director of the Department of Public Transformation (DoPT), led the project with support from Dybsetter and Southwest RSDP as well as numerous project partners including local architectural designer Miranda Moen, Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, Homeboat Arts Collective, University of Minnesota Morris Center for Small Towns, the Community Assistantship Program at the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, and a network of local, regional and national artists.

A 21st century barn raising

“We started with The YES! House, a building on Main Street in Granite Falls, that had been vacant for over 20 years. It had good bones but needed a lot of work,” said Hanson.

Through a series of artist-led temporary installations and pop-up events over the course of year and a half, the community came together to envision what the space could become. The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership architect on the team, James Arentson, likened the process to a “21st century barn raising” approach. “We brought artists and community members together to ask questions, such as: ‘What can you imagine happening here? What would you like to see on Main Street that isn’t here now? What kinds of events would help you connect better?’” Hanson said.

While the team cancelled inperson events and community builds beginning in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, work on the resource guide continued virtually. The team compiled lessons learned and documented their creative community development process as they went, which helped in creating and iterating the step-by-step guide.

“We knew from the start that we wanted to make this an adaptable process and to share what we were doing and finding,” Hanson said. “[We wanted] to talk about both the joys and challenges and the power of working with artists to transform vacant spaces.”

With support from Meghna Subba, a research assistant on the project and graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the team designed and drafted the interactive Creative Community Development resource guide. Subba was new to the subject matter but brought design skills, a background in communications, and expertise in sustainable development to the role.

“I hadn’t seen artists working with the community in this way before — to see how they can help activate vacant spaces. Having that creative insight to find better ways to work with these spaces, I was instantly excited to jump in,” Subba said. A tenet of the guide is its “creative community design/build” process led by artists, property owners and community members to engage in redevelopment projects, as illustrated by a detailed case study of The YES! House.

In addition, the guide provides a directory for local governments in southwestern 

Minnesota, relevant loan and grant opportunities, nonprofit organizations working on community development, related planning tools and educational resources and additional links that dig deeper into the YES! House and DoPT’s work.

Lessons on building resilience and connections

Members of the project team spoke to their hopes for how projects like the YES! House and accompanying resource guide can help broaden connections and strengthen resilience in communities in Southwest Minnesota.

“Rural communities have been extracted from and under-resourced for generations. What I hope is that this artist-led approach can really shift that from a systems perspective,” Hanson said.

In addition to showing how a town can transform its ways of both thinking and being with a new approach to vacant space, this work offers important connections that may not be cultivated otherwise.

“One of my hopes for projects like this working on the topic of resilient communities is that at the heart we see connections. How does Main Street business development fit into the arts, into sustainability and local community? And vice versa? How does it all fit together?” Dybsetter said.

Subba also saw important connections made in this work between different geographies and especially urban and rural areas. “I came to Minnesota for school. This project and working with RSDP have really opened my eyes to what Greater Minnesota is all about.” Subba said. “If I didn’t have this opportunity, I wouldn’t have known what rural artists and people are doing to bring new ideas and new life to their towns.”

With the publication of this resource guide and recent webinar (z.umn.edu/5ujp) in collaboration with RETHOS: Places Reimagined to share it with a broader audience, Hanson and her team continue to work on turning the community vision for the YES! House into reality and to inspire other small towns in southwestern Minnesota and beyond to follow suit.

“It doesn’t have to all happen at once, and it doesn’t have to be perfect, but there are so many things you can do to mobilize around vacant buildings in small towns using creative approaches,” Hanson said.