By Danielle Cabot
Visitors to Greenfield find themselves welcomed by a landscaped city gateway as they drive along the Highway 55 corridor. Residents pull into a nearby church early on a Tuesday morning to plan a community history project. And over at the Old Town Hall, fresh paint and décor have created a clean and updated space for city meetings.
Each of these scenes was made possible by volunteers.
Greenfield, a bedroom community about 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis on the Crow River, is divided in the south by Highway 55 running east-west through the city’s borders and has no downtown or natural gathering space. Nevertheless, the city of 2,800 people is attracting new residents to its rolling acres with its rural feel, good schools, and safe streets, according to Mayor Brad Johnson. Now Johnson can add a renewed sense of civic pride to that list. __________________________________________________
Left: A crew of volunteers maintains the landscaping at the
city’s Highway 55 gateways.
A fresh start
It hasn’t always been so idyllic in Greenfield. In 2008-2009, an atmosphere of hostility and dysfunction came to a head, bringing the city unwanted media attention and a tainted image. The former mayor resigned, and a new city administrator was hired to give the city a fresh start. The following two administrations, led by now-state Rep. Jerry Hertaus and the current Mayor Johnson, have since re-established a culture of respect and civility.
“Good people stood up and said, ‘Enough is enough,’” Johnson says. “We had new people run for office and change leadership style. The residents responded.”
Longtime residents stepped up to take back the image of their hometown, while new residents have shown an eagerness to establish roots and invest in their community. Ideas long discussed but never realized have begun to blossom.
“Greenfield needed to be known for more positive projects, more community involvement,” says volunteer Annette Tryon (shown at right).
The city’s effort to draw residents back into positive civic participation began in 2009 when the city applied for and received a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) grant to beautify the area along the highway, says Greenfield City Administrator Kathy McCullum.
The city then had to do the work. Since Greenfield operates without a parks department (and two employees round out the public works team), the two dozen volunteers that came forward made the project possible.
That successful initiative jumpstarted what would become a new tradition of service. Several volunteers from the “Beautify Greenfield Highway 55 Team” have continued to serve as the “Garden Masters” volunteer group, maintaining the plantings for the public eye.
From there, volunteers also decided they needed a place where residents could meet socially. So, the “It’s Just Coffee” group was formed.
Now residents get together once a month to discover what they have in common, which, despite ideological differences, has turned out to be a lot. In fact, It’s Just Coffee started with informal chats, which then turned into storytelling, which in time has led to a meaningful project for the city and surrounding area.
Storytelling leads to historical society
While the Greenfield Garden Masters are now quite literally putting down new roots, other volunteers are starting to bring to life old ones.
The storytelling that came to be the staple of It’s Just Coffee participants has developed into a focus on the history of the city and the surrounding area, which has become the foundation of the budding Greenfield Historical Society.
With the help of City Hall, the Greenfield Historical Society in December 2012 received a $7,000 Minnesota Historical Society grant funded by the state’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. The city has worked to take care of paperwork and administrative functions to get projects going, and from there momentum “just snowballs,” McCullum says.
“We decided with the $7,000 grant to look at the history of recreation,” says Al Moen, a regular volunteer and part of the Greenfield Historical Society.
Volunteers have teamed up with the director of the neighboring Rockford Area Historical Society to start gathering the history of lake resorts, dance halls, and “watering holes” that once dotted the landscape. The goal is to record an oral history video, and eventually create a printed book, Moen says.
Taking the lead
Nowadays, the city calls for volunteers, and is met with responsive residents. And residents have come forward with what they want to do in the city and what they need to get started, and their ideas are considered for the city’s support.
For example, when Hertaus was in office, City Hall’s cubicle walls and furniture needed to be reconfigured for efficiency. Volunteers, including two councilmembers, quickly organized to do the work and, while they were at it, they painted several walls.
Sometimes a volunteer who can’t provide labor or much time will find another way to help, such as one woman who sewed curtains for Old City Hall, or another who baked cookies for volunteers at an event.
Last spring’s Arbor Day event in the city’s new Greenfield Central Park is another example of the city-citizen collaboration. “[it] was a way for us to bring people together to build that sense of community,” Mayor Johnson says.
What began as a council-sponsored event three years ago has come to be largely run by volunteers.
Greenfield’s Arbor Day also looks to the future of the community by inviting local fifth graders to help plant. “It’s a great way for them to take some ownership in that asset and realize it’s there to enjoy in the future,” Johnson says.
Ripples of service
This renewed civic energy has also been mirrored in the private and faithbased sectors.
In 2009, RiverWorks Community Development was founded to serve the Greenfield/ Rockford area. RiverWorks has established a food shelf and a thrift store in the neighboring City of Rockford, where the per capita income is about half of Greenfield’s, but the residents and the quaint downtown area are vital to the greater area’s school district, history, and economy.
The RiverWorks “Thousand Hearts Crow River Serve Day” last spring took on the goal of completing 40 service projects to provide meals, health services, dental care, and more. As part of the Thousand Hearts event, area residents cleaned up and maintained areas of town including fire hydrants, school grounds, and historic sites.
“There are things these organizations are doing that government really can’t do, but we see the need,” says Johnson. “The food shelf, the thrift store, and the Thousand Hearts now … those are things that government—especially smaller governments like us—don’t have the funding sources or any staff or really any means to do. So we rely on the volunteerism in the community.”
In 2012, Riverwood Covenant Church, whose members helped found River- Works, opened a new building off of Highway 55 with ample gathering space open for community groups. It was the first church built in Greenfield in 108 years, according to Pastor Keith Robinson, and is also working to be active in the community.
The end result of all this new energy is a positive impact on the city’s bottom line and the quality of life for residents. Volunteer hours invested have spared the city the staff hours it would require to reach the same result. In reality, McCullum says, these projects would simply never leave the drawing board without the support.
Residents also now enjoy an energized community, where citizens and city officials work together to build community, improve the lives of local residents, and share a sense of pride in the historic area.
“The people in the city, they were always wonderful,” McCullum says. “They just went through a very difficult time. But we all rose above it, and now we’re just soaring.”
Tips for Developing a Volunteer Base
Danielle Cabot is communications assistant with the League of Minnesota Cities.
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