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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Green Energy Potential: Turbines, Tourism, Rural Revitalization

Update: Props to Mike Knutson at Reimagine Rural, who provides excellent pix and perspective. And Dwaine Chapel, LAIC, are you listening?

This week's small-town hero has to be Joe Kolbach, the visionary behind the restoration of the old School for the Blind in Gary, South Dakota. The Howard native's efforts to revitalize tiny Gary's economy demonstrate two vital components of successful rural economic development:
  1. An ability to look past what was and what is and see what can be, and
  2. A grasp of the potential for green power to provide not just clean electricity but far-reaching economic impacts.
On vision: Kolbach looked at a small town with 210 residents, no functioning school, 24 miles from I-29, and saw not decline but opportunity for growth. As Steve Young puts it, Kolbach "never saw the ghosts." He set to renovating the blind school, an august yet forgotten campus vacant and vandalized for 30 years. He turned old campus buildings into the Buffalo Ridge Resort: a hotel, a banquet hall, and office spaces (and a rec center with a racquetball court on the way!). He restored Lake Elsie (filled in 1962 after a boy drowned—there's a great, grim short story there), stocked it with trout, and built a campground and hiking trails around it.

On green power: Key to this whole story is wind power. Kolbach founded Energy Maintenance Service in 1998 to provide components and services for wind turbines. He evidently made some money. That's how he can bankroll this project.

But Kolbach's not just some crazy rich guy pouring money down a hole. He sees a chance to turn green power into green dollars downtown. You see, wind power and other alternative energy projects aren't just about burning less oil and hugging trees. All those folks building and maintaining wind turbines need training. Kolbach sees training sessions for employees of just one company, Airstreams, as having the potential to fill the Herrick Hotel at the Buffalo Ridge Resort most weeks. Central continental location, no city traffic, beautiful getaway... brilliant!

Kolbach and his partners in Gary are on the right track. Building synergy with history, tourism, and the energy of the future is a blueprint for success on which lots of towns across South Dakota can capitalize.

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