What Good is a Library These Days?

I am intrigued with the ongoing discussion over the future of the Nobles County Library.  As a professor and an author, I find myself both using and making contributions to libraries as part of my everyday job.  I’ve also, for better or worse, spent a lot of time in libraries: 4-8 hours a day during grad school.

I’m not a civil engineer or a city planner, so I’ll withhold my amateur opinion on the question of location.  But, working for various academic institutions in the last five years, I can speak a bit about the future and purpose of libraries.  I believe we need to ask: Will a library be relevant for the next 30 years?

Nobles County Library, photo (c) Daily Globe

I use the Nobles County Library—I was there on Tuesday actually.  I also remember going there as a child.  Thirty years ago, a library was different.  It was our entire world of knowledge.  If a book wasn’t at the local library, it practically didn’t exist.  It’s not that way today.  The same information is now a simple Google search away.  From my iPhone, I can order nearly any book in the universe and have it in two days.  If I can’t wait, I can buy it, or check it out, NOW on a Kindle.  Sure, we still check out books at the library—why buy a book when you can check it out for free—but the local library is no longer the only option, and by no means the entire world.

Many people are predicting the demise of the book.  Bookstores are disappearing.  Barnes & Noble is struggling.  Physical books are going digital.  Publishers find digital books more profits.  For consumers, it’s cheaper.  And, we prefer our information in headlines and YouTube how-to clips rather than the laborious task of reading (are you tired yet?).

With books becoming dinosaurs and communities tight on money, one might ask: Why build a library at all?  I see libraries is perhaps more important than ever before.  But, the library of the future–the library still relevant in 30 years–is dramatically different.  We need to rid ourselves of view of the library as a quiet place filled with books where you get yelled at for talking too loudly.  More importantly, the library of the future is no longer about books.  Yes, you read that right.  The library is no longer about books.

Universities are typically on the cutting edge of library innovation and, in my nine years at Pepperdine University, I saw our library change dramatically.  They divested book collections, tore out bookshelves, installed computers, put up flatscreen TVs running announcements, built community spaces, and added coffee bars.  Universities are building the library of the future, and here are three ways they are changing:

Meeting Space – There are few places anymore that allow for community meeting space.  In the last several decades, we’ve designed our homes, offices, and cities around the individual, and to the detriment of community.  We wanted private offices and fences around our homes.  In recent years, there’s been a shift back to redeveloping community spaces.  Companies like Pixar attribute their creative success to building collaborative environments where people bump into each other and are forced to meet.  At Pepperdine, nearly half our library became comfy chairs for people to meet and study together.  We added rooms for community meetings.  We even installed a coffee shop area (yes, IN the library) to encourage people to stay and mingle.  The library of the future might host town halls and even wedding receptions.  The library of the future is grand central station for community forums and civic meetings.

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Accessing the World – I am finishing writing my next book—a historical narrative.  I estimate that 75% of my research came from digitized books and newspapers ion Google Books.  I didn’t need to go to a library.  And, it was much more efficient to do my research digitally.  The other 25% of my research came from obscure physical books that only several libraries in the US had.  My local library didn’t need the book, it just needed to borrow the book from another library.  The library of the future won’t have an exhaustive collection of books; it will be a part of the networks to access any book or piece of information.  And, most importantly, it should make access available to everyone.

Specialization – If I were a New York City student writing about westward expansion of America, where would I go?  I wouldn’t expect a New York library to have original documents.  I would expect to find it at a library in Worthington, MN, a pioneering town settled furthest west on the St. Paul & Sioux City Railway.  Libraries serve a special purpose in collecting and preserving culture—history, art, and local knowledge.  The library of the future will be a specialized.  It will do one thing really well.  There’s no reason for the Nobles County Library to amass the best collection on the history of the Revolutionary War when it can instantly, digitally access an amazing collection at a library in Massachusetts.  The Nobles County Library should amass the best collection on the culture of Nobles County and Southwest Minnesota.  We need libraries to archive and preserve culture, or we will lose it.

There may be a day when we have physical libraries with no books.  The library of future won’t be about books, or even about a location, it will be about the experience.  The library will be an experience where community, information, history, art, and culture all co-mingle.  The library of the future will be an integrated experience where an artist’s display inspires a future International Festival event; where the Nobles County Historical Society informs a researcher in Oxford, England; where high school students come to study together because they like the environment.  If the next Nobles County Library looks anything like the library of the future, it’s something to be very excited about.

Lake Okabena (Part 3 of 3): Bring Back the Dredge?

This blog series started with asking whether Worthington is losing its greatest natural asset: Lake Okabena.  Response from the community indicated deep interest in the future of the lake.  In Part 2, I addressed algae, a chief challenge to the use and quality of the lake.  Giant summer blooms of pea soup wreak havoc on our enjoyment of the lake and its surrounding parks.  We considered whether an algae skimmer may be a solution to this problem.

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In my final article in this series, we will talk about dredging—a common inquiry in discussing lake quality.

Defining the Problem

If you’re like me, you nostalgically remember the old dredge, “Shawano.”  I vaguely recall seeing it at work on Lake Okabena, and distinctly remember its resting place on West Shore.  The dredge provided comfort—we believe something good was being done to the lake below its murky waters.

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Should we dredge Okabena again?  Dredging will certainly solve one problem: Lake depth.  We often wish Lake Okabena was deeper.  If you have run your motor into the ground or jumped off into the muck, you will probably agree.

And, Lake Okabena always seems like it’s getting shallower.  Lakes serve the purpose of sediment retention ponds, and nature eventually reclaims them.  Based on studies conducted on local lakes, we lose an average of 1/20th of an inch of the lake each year.  If you saw the inflow of sediment into the lake this spring with the torrential rains, you know it can be more in rainy years and you know all that mud has to go somewhere.  Many other lakes and rivers around the world no longer enjoy their full use due to sediment fill.  In short, Lake Okabena is slowly, and naturally, filling in.

Would dredging do more than make the lake deeper?  Hopefully.  A study conducted in 1979 on Fairmont’s Hall Lake, similarly situated to Lake Okabena, indicated that dredging Hall Lake allowed for water thermoclines to mix properly, reducing algae and improving game fish.  To achieve this, they recommended dredging to an optimal maximum depth of 24 feet.

A historical anecdote from Wgtn.net indicates that dredging did noticeably improve water quality in Lake Okabena too: “Gradually over the years of dredging, the removal of large amounts of silt and the natural wave action of the lake allowed the lake to cleanse itself and bring a return of clean sand on the shores and a decreased muddy bottom for swimming and lake water sports.”  I’ve heard many stories of better water quality during our dredging days, and I would enjoy hearing from more people who knew the lake back then to contribute anecdotally.

Seeking Solutions

Why did Worthington start dredging in the first place?  In the 1930s, local philanthropist, E.O. Olson, caught a vision for cleaning up Lake Okabena.  He experimentally bought a dredge pump and used it to help build the grade.  Due to the success of his experiment,  he bought Shawano the dredge in the 1940s off the Mississippi River and gave it to Worthington.  The city funded its operational costs.

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If we want to dredge again today, turnkey solutions exist with dredge companies—they will do it all from equipment to operations to permitting.  Hydraulic dredging costs $4-8 per cubic yard.  If we want to take 20 acres of the lake down 2.5 feet, we are looking at a cost of $300,000-500,000.

At that price, we are in the ballpark to consider buying a used dredge for Worthington to own (like these from Dredgebrokers.com). It would certainly be beneficial to have our own dredge for continued use, and naturally there would be incremental operational costs.  On the other hand, it would be convenient to hire a flat-rate company to show up and handle the details.

A bigger challenge might be what to do with the sediment.  Worthington’s old dredge built most of Olson Park, Centennial Park, and many of the other parks around Lake Okabena.  It’s not obvious where the sediment would go, but not insurmountable.

Conclusion

Next time you drive across the grade and pass by Olson Park, give a nod to E.O. Olson.  He had the foresight and initiative to envision the future of Worthington and extend the value of Lake Okabena decades forward.  His dredging took an estimated six inches of mud out across the entire lake—approximately 17,280,000 cubic feet.  The value of that today falls between $2-5 million.  Without Olson’s foresight, Lake Okabena today would be considerably shallower.  We enjoy Lake Okabena and it’s parks today largely because of his vision.

lson Park courtesy of www.ci.worthington.mn.us

Lake depth is a problem we will need to confront eventually—maybe even dire several generations from now.  Lake depth also may contribute to our other woes, such as the muck and algae blooms.  Do we suck it up (pun completely intended), and make the investment to start dredging again?  Or, do we stay the course and hope Lake Okabena fills very slowly?

Lake Okabena (Part 2 of 3): A Solution to the Algae Problem?

Last week, I wrote Part 1 in my series on Lake Okabena.  I asked whether Worthington is losing its greatest asset and whether the community is giving enough attention to the lake.  The article received great feedback from readers.  The response was unanimous and clear: The lake is one of our greatest assets and it needs more attention and investment from the community.

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Given the response, I decided to expand the series into three posts to fully discuss solutions, particularly from feedback from readers.

Some Givens

First, lake quality is not a new problem.  The challenges of a shallow prairie lake are not unique to Worthington.  I’ve spent time on lakes all over the region and they all seem to get green in the summer (sometimes much worse than Okabena).  It’s also not a modern problem—algae blooms were reported on the lake decades ago and lakes can go through cycles.  Some challenges we have to live with, but we can learn from others.

Second, unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet.  The long-term solutions are indeed long-term and could take decades to implement.  In preparation for this series, I sat down with Dan Livdahl of the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed to learn about the many good things they are doing.  We talked about everything from giant aerators to draining the lake and digging it out with mining equipment.

Defining the Problem

From the feedback I received, it’s clear that we are not proud of Lake Okabena, and a lot of that has to do with water quality.

Let’s face it, Lake Okabena is a shallow, mud bottom prairie lake—we will never have crystal clear waters.  I’ve been in lakes and rivers and oceans around the world and, trust me, it actually gets a lot worse than our murky water.  This is also getting better and, until the torrential rains this June, I noticed a lot of improvement.  Praise goes to the Watershed team, which is working hard upstream, removing rough fish, and building retention ponds.

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Algae—this issue may be the chief concern for citizens.  The “green paint” algae blooms start as early as June now and inhibit us from using the lake, and even the parks surrounding the lake.  The algae affects the most people.  Boaters can’t use the lake, fisherman can’t use the lake, swimmers can’t use the lake.  Have you walked around the lake during a bad bloom?  The smell is horrific, rendering many of Worthington’s parks and bike trails unusable, not to mention being aesthetically displeasing.

Seeking Solutions

Can we address the cause?  The cause of the algae is runoff.   Approximately 70% of the runoff comes from Whiskey Ditch and 30% from town.  Improving runoff is a long-term strategy that changes agricultural practices and land use for filtering.  We definitely need to invest in the watershed, but there is overnight cure.

Can we address the symptom—the algae blooms themselves?  Hopefully.  One can largely kill the algae by chemically treating the lake on a monthly basis.  This, however, has undesirable effects on fish and the ecosystem.  As a nod to our local biotech companies, if you can create an economic, large-scale, ecologically harmless solution to lake algae, cities across the world will be clamoring for your product.

I am attracted to an out-of-the-box solution: Algae skimming.

Algae floats on top of the water, so it’s possible to simply skim it off the top like skimming the fat off broth.  Several cities and lakes are now employing algae skimmers.  An algae skimmer is much like a floating lawn mower: As you drive, rollers filter the water and deposit algae in a bucket.  If seeing is believing, watch this video:

I spoke with the Minnesota-based manufacturer of the Eco Harvester above.  The Eco Harvester will remove approximately 1 acre of surface algae per hour and it’s a good size for our lake.  At less than $50,000, it costs about the price of a small tractor the city might use for maintenance (they offered under $40,000 for an end-of-summer sale).

I look at the algae problem much like having a giant park—we just need to mow it occasionally to make it useful.  And, the algae can potentially be used as fertilizer after harvesting.

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In my view, it’s worth having a conversation about whether an algae skimmer is a good investment for Worthington.  An algae skimmer would solve our chief complaint and make the lake instantly more usable during the summer months.  When other lakes in the region suffer algae blooms, Worthington would be a refuge.

Conclusion

There is much more to discuss about the future of Lake Okabena and how it fits into a strategic vision for Worthington.  Clearly, we need to actively pursue solutions to immediately improve the lake.  In my next post, Part III, we will discuss dredging.  It may even warrant a new series on setting a vision for merging downtown and Sailboard Beach into a destination for shopping and dining.  For now, I suggest that an algae skimmer may be part of that answer.

My question for you:  Do you agree that an algae skimmer is part of the solution and would it be an investment supported by the community?

Lake Okabena (Part 1 of 3): Is Worthington Losing Its Greatest Asset?

Lake Okabena might be the place where I’m happiest. My favorite childhood memories involve summers on the lake. I fell in love twice thanks to Lake Okabena. First, with wakeboarding back in 1994. Then I met my wife, Lisa, on Lake Okabena (yes, while windsurfing on the lake—a story for another time).

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This Fourth of July, I was eager for some quality time with Lake Okabena. I read about the early algae bloom, yet climbed into the water once it subsided. Within minutes, my throat and sinuses swelled up and my eyes itched terribly. What was happening to me? I wondered. The next day, it happened again. The lake triggered an allergic reaction I’d never before experienced.

Summers always seem to bring discouragements with the quality of Lake Okabena. Some years it’s an early algae bloom, others its a particularly noxious bloom. Then there’s the boat propeller reminding us that the lake seems to be getting shallower in a post-dredging era (I’m old enough to remember the dredge in action). The instant allergic reaction to Lake Okabena’s waters brought my outlook on the lake to a new low.

So, I ask: Are we losing our greatest asset?

Come with me, if you will, on a Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol-esque journey to an Okabena of Worthington’s past, present, and future.

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I love the old photos of the Lake Okabena—the bathhouse, the old power plant, the undeveloped shorelines, and the annual ice harvest. One of the primary reasons that Worthington was chosen as a city site was for the lake—the steam-powered trains needed a place to refill. I also understand the lake served as a tourist attraction. Praised for it’s beautiful waters, visitors rode the train out from Chicago just to spend a weekend on the lake. There was a steamboat for rides. There were sailboats. There was the bathhouse with its slides. One gets the impression that the lake was central to the city, and a magnet throughout the region.

The present picture is mixed. Functionally, Lake Okabena comes close to the perfect lake. Not only nicely situated in town, it’s the perfect size—small enough to walk around and yet large enough for boating (try walking around West Okoboji or try boating on Lake Calhoun). To top it off, an astounding 55% of the lakeshore is public park. It’s truly the people’s lake. Although Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, there really aren’t that many around in our region—cities like Sioux Falls would love to have a Lake Okabena.

As good as it is, the lake is far from perfect. Public enemy number one: algae blooms. In my 30 years of lake use, they seem to be arriving earlier and getting worse. Beyond the algae, there are other drawbacks. The water is not clear, the bottom is muddy, and it seems to be getting shallower every year.

None of this is a secret—Lake Okabena has some very unsatisfying features. The 2009 Strategic Planning Survey (http://www.ci.worthington.mn.us/sites/default/files/docs-forms/strategic-planning-survey-results.pdf) ranked Lake Okabena’s quality as one of the top concerns and one of the highest priorities for investment. In short, people want a better lake.

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Now, look into the future and imagine a Worthington without Lake Okabena. It’s not inconceivable. The algae blooms could get so bad that the lake becomes essentially unusable. It smells too bad for walking, much less swimming. The depth becomes so shallow that boating becomes too treacherous. For all practical purposes, it’s just a big, nasty pond. What happens to Worthington? There would be no Windsurfing Regatta. The Turkey Day 10k, without a lake to run around, becomes much less attractive. There’s little reason to camp at Olson Park. Summer tourism drops considerably. Many who live on the lake leave town.

Worthington, without Lake Okabena, is, well, just another town along I-90.

I challenge you to imagine a Worthington without Lake Okabena. It’s one of those “you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone” assets. I think you’ll draw the same conclusion as me—it’s our most important physical resource.

What intrigues me is that we know it is important to us and, as survey results prove, we want to invest in it. Yet, we don’t seem to do that. The lake doesn’t seem to get better.

In my second post in this series, I’ll share some suggestions for improving Lake Okabena and what investing in it might bring to Worthington.

Question for you: Do you think we should invest in Lake Okabena? If so, what would you do?

Is Worthington a “Great” Town? (Part 2 of 2)

Due to a trip to Africa followed by the Fourth of July, I took a brief hiatus from writing—but now we’re back!  A couple weeks ago, I wrote part 1 of a blog post called “Is Worthington a ‘Great’ Town?” where I asked why certain towns (populations under 25,000) made a “greatest” list compiled by Smithsonian Magazine.  I also asked whether a town like Worthington has the special sauce to make the list.

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A high school friend recently told me that she brought an out-of-town colleague for a visit to Worthington—and the experience did not make a good first impression.  My friend wanted to get out of town immediately after high school.  She didn’t see Worthington as great and, in turn, prejudiced her colleague’s impression.

While I think there are several factors that go into making a great town, I believe the key difference that allows “great towns” to rise above is that the people believe their town is great.

I’ve spent considerable time in several “great towns.”  I lived in Malibu, California, for 4 years (a town that many consider great).  And, if you added all the time I’ve stayed with my grandparents, I’ve probably spent more than half a year in Naples, Florida (a town that made the Smithsonian list).

Malibu, population 13,000, has one obvious thing going for it: It overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  Friends love visiting Malibu—it’s a tourist destination—and it’s where everyone wants to live (and most celebrities do).  When I could no longer live in a dorm, I had to move due to the high cost of living.  Yet, while the Pacific is beautiful, the ocean isn’t the town.

If you stripped Malibu from the Pacific Ocean, your experience would be much different.  The homes are old and packed together tightly.  No backyards or side yards.  Tangles of electrical and phone lines crisscross the street indicating expansion outpaced infrastructure.  There’s no city sewer—every building runs on a septic tank.  There’s no main street.  There’s no downtown.  There’s nothing open past 10 p.m.—not even a restaurant or coffee shop.  The town is searching for a space for a community auditorium.  The single annual community gathering—the Malibu Chili Cookoff—has some food stands and a few carnival rides.  I haven’t even mention the annual Santa Ana winds that frequently bring fierce fires.

In short, if I drove friends into Malibu without them seeing the Pacific Ocean, or I told them how ugly the power lines look, they too would likely receive a bad first impression.

So, what’s the difference between a Malibu and a Worthington?  What makes Malibu a great town?  Aside from the Pacific Ocean, it’s that people believe Malibu is a great town.  It’s not that they overlook downsides of Malibu, it’s that they find positive ways to construe them: they like Malibu’s “rustic” appeal, its “nice and quiet” at night, the lack of infrastructure is “charming.”

Developing the collective attitude of a great town like Malibu, I suspect, is somewhat inexplicable—much like what makes a YouTube video go viral.  But clearly, it happens when a small group of people tell their friends how great something is and their friends believe it and tell their friends.

I remember high school and college graduation as my friends dreamed wistfully about moving to California.  They had never been to California.  Yet, California is all attitude.  It’s songs like “California Dreamin’” or Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Californication” that make everyone think they need to go to California.

Pacific Ocean aside, when I place Worthington on the analysis of the four elements from the last post (history, uniqueness, arts, and vision), there’s reason for Worthington to believe it is great.

Worthington has a fascinating history.  I love the story that Worthington was founded as a prohibition colony along the St. Paul to Sioux City Railway.  I’ve read stories that claim the founders walked thousands of miles throughout the area searching for the perfect spot.  It truly was a pioneering town.  In many ways, if you went any further, you entered the wild wild west.

Places like Worthington have a unique culture.  Where else (beside Cuero, TX) can you find a day dedicated to racing turkeys down main street?  Or take the county fair.  There’s something special about a place where people show their animals and vegetables (my wife, Lisa, claims to be a past champion in the pet category for her “pet” chicken).  In places like Malibu, the annual fair is just a bunch of carnival rides devoid of culture.

While arts might not jump off the page, there’s more than meets the eye.  I’d never given the band shell much consideration until the Smithsonian article specifically called it out as something special.  Then there’s much more: Memorial Auditorium, the Windsurfing Regatta & Unvarnished Music Festival, the Dayton House, Pioneer Village (which is truly a remarkable gallery of the pioneering past), and, of course, Lake Okabena—which I believe is Worthington’s greatest asset.

Vision is an entire discussion in itself—it’s about strategically knowing where you are going.  And, ultimately, vision is the deciding factor on what makes a great town.  What’s the difference between a great town and Worthington?  Great towns believe they are great—whether or not they actually are—and they believe that every action works toward making them greater.

I don’t know whether Worthington could get the attention of Smithsonian.  In my view, it’s got the stuff—in many ways, there’s more going for it than many of the great towns that did make the list.  It’s a matter of collectively believing we are truly great and when our visitors leave with a different impression, this tells me we still have some work to do.

On the other hand, we had some friends from “great cities” visit and we showed them the best of Worthington—from the lake to country.  They didn’t leave dismayed by what they saw.  Instead, one set of friends left saying it was their kids’ favorite vacation ever and the other set left wondering if they could move to town.

It’s reactions like this that make me believe greatness is indeed within reach.

Is Worthington a “Great” Town? (Part 1 of 2)

The Smithsonian Magazine recently released its list of the “20 Best Small Towns in America.” Worthington, unfortunately, did not make the list.

According to the article, the Smithsonian used a computer database to analyze towns with populations under 25,000 to identify elements that made towns most attractive. Whether Worthington was even in the database, I do not know, but I’d love to see the data.

The article made me wonder: What makes a town “great?”

Without a doubt, there’s something special about the idea of living in a great town. It’s got the personality and charm lost on a big city. It’s got heart and soul. You can wrap your arms around it. You will know people when you go to the grocery store. If you look at the Smithsonian list, you will recognize some of the town names, such as Taos, New Mexico, and Naples, Florida, but I had never heard of most of the “best towns.”

If we can answer “What makes a town great?” then it follows that we might ask “Could Worthington ever make the list?” The skeptics may so “no” immediately, but I’ve lived in several towns and I’m not so sure.

First, we must answer the initial question of what makes a town great. The Smithsonian came to one simple conclusion: Culture. Great towns have robust, distinctive culture. They’ve got personality and life. The Smithsonian listed a variety of identifiers of culture: Historic places, museums, bandshells, and so on.

I think we can breakdown culture into several important elements, including:

History – Great towns often have interesting history. They played an important role in the development of our nation and they celebrate this heritage. Consider Deadwood—a symbol of the wild west—or Fredericksburg, VA—epicenter of the Civil War .

Uniqueness – Great towns have unique features or resources, sometimes its geography or location or its just quirkiness. Consider some unique towns in MN: What do you think of when you think of Duluth? Giant ships coming to port for iron ore. And Ely, MN? Fishing.

Arts – Great towns embrace distinctive arts. Theatre, music, fine art, dance provide the kind of entertainment that draw people and keep them there.

Vision – Great towns know where they are going. They are strategic at positioning themselves. Sioux Falls has been an illustration of this. I remember when it won the prestigious “Best City in America” title in early 90s. Sioux Falls has vision—from restoring downtown to building the new greenway, it’s become a very attractive city.

Sometimes cultures develop and sustain themselves organically, but other times they need encouragement. People move, environments change, traditions die out. It takes work to sustain them.

In my view, cultures are sustained by identifying the factors that make a place special. Once we recognize them, we can continue them and encourage them. Yet, identifying them is hard, especially when you live somewhere for a long time, you don’t realize what truly makes you unique. It’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you.

Becoming a great town is all about “positioning”—identifying your strengths from the cultural factors and telling your town’s story. Why would someone want to visit your town? Or move to your town? People want to be a part of a great story—they want to live in places where there’s an interesting story to be told.

In my post next week, I’ll give you my view about how I think Worthington stacks up.

But first, let me ask you: What do you think makes Worthington special? Could it be a great town?

The Motor is So 2011: Why You Should Try Sailing

In the last 10 years, it’s been rare to spot a sailboat on Lake Okabena.  Two summers ago, I drove the jet ski slowly around the lake searching for sailboats in the lifts and yards of lake dwellers.  I counted only three.

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Sailboats on Lake Okabena about a century ago.

Gone are the “glory days “ of a Lake Okabena dotted with white triangular sails.  Certainly, the Windsurfing Regatta returned much needed attention to sailing sports, but few hardy souls take up these activities.  The sailboat, in particular, seems to have come and gone.  Still, I hope for a sailing revival.

There’s something deep and soulful about commanding a vessel powered solely by nature. You may be at the helm, but nature is truly in control. The strongest winds show you the ferocity of life. There is no motor to kill. The gusts and gales can drive you to edge of terror and what it means to be human. Sailing is the essence of human transport. The boat isn’t a vessel, it’s an instrument. The wind is your rhythm and meter. You’re playing classical music. And, above all, you feel like you’re really doing something.

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The modern “E Scow” in action on Labor Day.

Little more than a century ago, sailing was the only mode of global transportation. If you didn’t sail or the winds didn’t blow, you didn’t go.  I enjoy reading biographies of adventurers and recently started the journal of Captain James Cook who charted much of the Pacific. At the end of one of his multiyear journeys at sea, as his ship was ready to sail for home, Cook announced to his men that he had decided to extend their voyage another two years despite the harsh environment and solitude of the sea. The crew let out an enormous cheer that they could sail onward. There was something captivating about sailing.

Some of my earliest lake memories were near a sailboat. As a child, I remember watching with envy as my family members piloted the sailboats at our dock and, in their greatest moments, tipped the sailboats over for FUN.

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I watch on with envy: My grandfather pilots the original C Scow as my mother climbs onto a sideboard for ballast (circa 1986).

Eventually, the sailboats gave way to motorized craft until they no longer entered the water.  Sadly, the crown jewel of our small fleet—a wooden 20’ “C Scow”—finally rotted as it waited in a horse pasture.

Two years ago, sailing has made a renaissance at our home. Harkening back to my childhood memories, I declared that we should bring back the fabled “C Scow” that I recalled so fondly. I searched high and low for a new 20’ foot C Scow—the modern version of our old wooden boat. A scow is a fast, flat boat made for racing in lakes. Unlike our old wooden one, the new ones are made of fiberglass and aluminum for a quick, responsive ride. We found a relatively new boat, dirt-cheap.  And sailing returned with a vengeance.

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The E Scow on Labor Day Weekend.

Today, the motorboat and jet ski mostly sit on their stands. There are always crowds of friends at the dock lined up to take out the sailboats. In high winds, we take fast little boats called Lasers. My father and I drag race each other around the lake all day. In lighter winds, it’s scows, like our 28’ foot Megles E Scow. With a crew of 5 friends, sailing is a party.

I can see why sailing has lost its popularity. It takes some work—you have to rig the boat—and some understanding—you have to learn a few things about wind direction and technique. We’ve made watersports too easy today. Just gas up the jetski and go. Anyone can drive it; no instruction necessary. We love easy—especially my generation. It’s why we’d rather read the Sparknotes summary of a book or put the cheat codes into a video game to skip to the end.

Lisa and Jay Flipping the Laser

Lisa and Jay accidently tipping over the Laser. Guess we still have to learn.

But, easy is a fling. It’s a hollow, fleeting indulgence, and varnish wears off quickly. It’s the long-term, lifetime-to-master that is fulfilling. Sailing is a long-term relationship.

I hope for a sailing renaissance. I’d love to once again see a lake full of sailboats. At our dock, it’s happened. The sail is the new norm, and the motor is so 2011.

Finding Worthington Around the World

I work for Bedford Industries.  Although the company was founded in Worthington nearly 50 years ago, many from Worthington don’t know is that Bedford is the world’s largest manufacturer of twist ties.  And those tiny little bag closures know how to travel!

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Photo: Two of the original Bedford “B Trucks” carrying twist ties from Worthington across the country.

I do a significant amount of international travel related to my Global Justice work.  Whenever I enter a new country, I play a game: “Find a Bedford twist tie.“  I go into grocery stores, bakeries, and convenience stores to scan the aisles for our products.  Sometimes it isn’t easy–they are small.

One of the most memorable and unexpected occurrences happened in central Africa in the tiny nation of Rwanda.  Standing in line at a coffee shop in Kigali, something caught my eye on the display rack of coffee bags to my right—each one had a Bedford closure.  How it got here would be remarkable–Rwanda is landlocked and freight trains don’t go that deep into Africa.  That leaves air (unlikely due to cost) or land–weeks of travel over one of the most rugged shipping routes in the world.

I found Bedford twist ties on a (pre-earthquake) visit to Haiti—on several products in the grocery store.  I’ve been to a large bakery in Sao Paolo, Brazil, to watch our product go onto bread bags.  I once attended a tradeshow in Japan to see our product reach into Asia.  I’ve hunted them on the streets of Dubai.  I visited a farm in Bermuda to see them applied.  And I saw them in a tiny grocery in rural Costa Rica.

It boggles my mind to consider how a product left tiny Worthington to spread around the world.  Loaded into trucks in Worthington bound for our coasts, Bedford twist ties boarded boats, traveled over rough oceans, flew on airplanes, and made their way into the Far East or deep in remote Africa.

To add to that, several people from Worthington touched each product.  They took the order, schedule it for manufacturing, operated machines, caught and packaged the tie, warehoused it, confirmed its production, and trucked it to a final destination.

I like to think that there’s a bit of us that travels with everything we touch.  We can’t see it, but we’re part of it.  Every day, Worthington travels to millions of people, across the globe.  We can’t see it, but we’re there.  And that is amazing.

Worthington’s Okabena Apple Tree: On the Verge of Extinction?

Our family heirloom is an apple. No, not a carefully curated first generation iPod, but an actual, grown-on-a-tree apple. The kind you eat and it supposedly keeps the doctor away.

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As the story goes, my great-great-great grandfather, H.J. Ludlow, a horticulturalist, propagated this special, hearty apple. It grew on the shores of Lake Okabena in Worthington, Minnesota, and took the name “The Okabena Apple.” Continue reading

Lessons from Being Away

Lisa and I count down the days between trips home to Worthington.  Whenever we step back on an airplane to return to the West Coast, it pains us to leave.

Almost nine years ago, I left Minnesota for graduate school in California.  Maybe it was the “glamour” of moving to California, or an escape, or just chasing sun and surf.  Although I never expected to be gone this long, it was absolutely, without a doubt, the place I was supposed to be.  My intention was to return to Minnesota in four years after graduation—I even took my bar exam in Minnesota.  However, a post-graduation opportunity I couldn’t turn down came available.  Yet, I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I had never left.

Surfing Broad Beach in Malibu

Conventional wisdom would have suggested that I go to law school in state given plans to eventually return to Minnesota.  But I’m thankful for my time away.  I could recount all the unique experiences that arose in California, but the experiences are not what I appreciate the most.  Instead, it’s the perspective this time provided.

Being away so long, I’ve come to realize what I miss the most.

When I step off the plane at Joe Foss Field, the air is noticeable clearer.  Lisa and I always remark about how crisp the air feels; how much better we breathe.  Instantly.

On my drive from Sioux Falls to Worthington, I am astounded at the breathtaking beauty of the Great Plains.  I never appreciated the magnificence of open spaces, rolling fields, and brilliant green vegetation.  Growing up, it was easy to overlook the beauty of a humble cornfield.  In California–with a “don’t save it, pave it” philosophy–such scenes are an anomaly.

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I love that nothing is crowded.  In LA, on the other hand, everywhere you go, it’s swarming with people.  You are never alone, and you fight for everything–seats at restaurants, space at the beach, and (paid) parking spots.  At home, I can park anywhere—I could practically double-park and no one would care.  And, it’s all free!  On top of that, Minnesota spots are all wide enough for my Worthington-bought Ford truck.

You can still trust a handshake at home.  Californians would call me crazy to trust a handshake, but, in the Midwest, you can.  People can be taken at their word.

Most of all, Lisa and I miss being surrounded by people that we know.  I bumped into a friend in our grocery store in California who told me that in two years of living in the same neighborhood, I was the first person she recognized in the grocery store.  It occurred to me that my California grocery stopping experience was similar.  I love returning to Worthington because I can’t go to the grocery store without knowing someone.  There’s something special about being in a community large enough not to know everyone, but small enough to get your arms around.

I remember graduating from high school–so many of my friends could not wait to get away.  It seemed like there was something better waiting for us in places like Los Angeles, New York, and even Minneapolis.  After a couple years, the sugar high wears off and you realize what matters most.

Still, I will always recommend to people that they leave home for a while.  I’ll recommend that they, indeed, follow that desire to flee.  Why?  It’s easy not to appreciate the seemingly ordinary things like free parking spaces, endless cornfields, and trustworthy handshakes.  Sometimes it takes experiencing the opposite to realize how good you had it.