‘They’re With Us Every Step of the Way’: How One Co-op Is Reviving Its Towns

In South Dakota, Sioux Valley Energy’s Brandon Lane addresses the Colton Economic Development Group. (Photo Courtesy: Sioux Valley Energy)

Sioux Valley Energy General Manager and CEO Tim McCarthy has fond memories of the small Illinois town where he grew up. But, to his dismay, the area is now a shadow of its former self.

“I could have just cried driving through the town because it’s lost all sense of identity,” McCarthy said of a recent trip to visit his mother. “People used to keep their properties up, and it was a nice little place to grow up, and now it’s a ghost town…the town is generally unkept and it pains me to see that.”

That’s the scenario Sioux Valley Energy is working to avoid in its rural communities through its REVIVE 2030 program. The Colman, South Dakota-based co-op is using REVIVE 2030 as a vehicle to partner with communities in South Dakota and Minnesota to spark growth through economic and community development projects.

While Sioux Valley Energy has a rich history of being active in economic development and community engagement, REVIVE 2030 was developed after the co-op’s directors incorporated those goals as part of the strategic plan.

After a pandemic pause, the co-op held two community input sessions in late 2021 and early 2022 guided by outside facilitators with an array of local stakeholders. The co-op learned something surprising: Communities didn’t necessarily want cash.

“The feedback was clear,” said Carrie Vugteveen, Sioux Valley Energy’s vice president of public relations. “Communities needed ‘boots on the ground’ assistance, someone with knowledge of how economic development works, and who can actually be out in the communities.”

Based on that feedback, Sioux Valley Energy decided to expand its community and economic development team. Today, Brandon Lane, an economic development professional, and Jay Buchholz, already active in co-op community relations, meet regularly with elected officials, planners, business owners and other stakeholders in seven counties in the two states.

“Sometimes people aren’t always sure what’s available to them, or how to get to and utilize those resources,” said Lane, who sometimes logs hundreds of miles during the week visiting different communities. “We’re there to help them uncover what their community wants for a better quality of life, and we’ll help them fill the voids.”

While the participating towns differ in size and makeup, Lane and Buchholz identified three common areas of concern: lack of workforce housing, day care and water access.

REVIVE 2030 is currently helping communities in Rock County, Minnesota, find creative solutions, such as acquiring land for a small business strip and funding for day care centers. Calling themselves “Rock Strong”—a moniker coined by the co-op—stakeholders meet quarterly in sessions facilitated by Lane, who brings in state and federal experts. Through REVIVE 2030, the Rock Strong group receives assistance with promotional materials, planning and meal sponsorship for its meetings.

“From the very get-go, Sioux Valley stressed they want this to be a partnership,” Rock County Administrator Kyle Olde said. “They’re exposing us to different resources and different ideas, and they’re with us every step of the way. Honestly, I don’t think they take enough credit for what they’re doing.”

In Colton, South Dakota, stakeholders are leveraging a $15,000 inaugural investment from REVIVE 2030 to help the newly formed Colton Economic Development Group finance several projects, including a 70-acre, 49-home housing development and nighttime lighting for local baseball games to attract families, said Colton Mayor Trevor Bunde.

“Sioux Valley members should be really proud they are part of an electric co-op that makes investments into communities like this,” Bunde said.

Progress is incremental, as many economic development experts know, but that “shock” that Bunde was seeking to energize the community is happening. “I see our potential,” he said. “And it feels good to have someone like Sioux Valley behind you.”

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer for NRECA.