Wednesday, July 24, 2019
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Minnesota town struggles as its school and hospital close
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Starbuck, Minnesota, residents are worried about the future of their community after the town's hospital and school both shut down recently. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
One of the biggest fears for small town residents is the loss of a community institution like a school or a major employer. The folks in Starbuck, Minnesota, took a double hit this month, when the town of 1,400 saw both its elementary school and hospital close in the same week.

Starbuck, Minn. — People around the west central Minnesota town of Starbuck have filled their prescriptions at Samuelson Drug since the 1940s. This weekday morning, pharmacist John Samuelson is behind the counter, sorting pills for a customer's order. He runs the place with a cousin. They took the operation over from their fathers years ago.

Starbuck's hospital has sent them decades of business. But Samuelson says changes in this town have spawned an uncertain future.

"We'll just have to adapt to a town without a hospital," he says. "And now they're going to close the elementary school too,"

Samuelson warns customers if they don't use his pharmacy, it'll close down. He's afraid residents who travel to see a doctor in larger surrounding towns will have their prescriptions filled there.

People in Starbuck have worried for years about their hospital and school. The hospital was losing money. It was the smallest in the state with only 19 beds.

Declining enrollment at the elementary school, combined with flat education funding from the state, pretty much guaranteed it would close. Now students will have to take a half-hour bus ride to Glenwood for classes.

Standing in downtown Starbuck, Mayor Milo Holte says the shutdowns are an economic and emotional blow to the community. But Holte doesn't think they should spend too much time in mourning.

"We fought this as much as we could. So we're going to have to look at some other aspects of what can we do from here, and let's make this into a positive somehow," Holte said.

One positive for Starbuck is its location. It sits on the shore of Lake Minnewaska, Minnesota's 13th largest lake. Town leaders hope they can use this recreational haven to draw more tourists to the area. They're also planning a campaign to attract retirees looking for a reasonably priced lake home.

But not everyone is convinced those ideas will save the town. Irene Nelson, 75. is a feisty, lifelong resident of Starbuck. She sits in a plastic lawn chair near the front steps of her house, a block from the closed elementary school, where she worked for 19 years. She lost her cafeteria job when the school shut down. Now she's afraid Starbuck doesn't have much of a future.

"The town dies when everything closes. If you take away all the kids and the doctors and your hospital, the town is going to die," Nelson said.

Emotions run heavy in Starbuck these days. That's understandable according to Ben Winchester, a researcher at the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

"The sense of loss is immense in the community right now. You go through the stages of grief, just as you do when you lose a loved one," said Winchester. "It's a pretty fresh cut on the community, and it's going to take time for people to come out and start thinking differently about how their community is situated in Minnesota."

Winchester says Starbuck's plan to lure retirees to the community puts them on the right track. The town's economy could benefit because of its lakefront property. And he says Starbuck may still attract young families even without a school, if it markets itself as a small town that's close to everything.

"Some communities have found out that you don't have to offer all the services when they are within driving distance," said Winchester. "In many cases you build it and they still won't come. It some cases you don't build it and they still come."

Starbuck isn't destined to be a ghost town in Winchester's mind. Town leaders optimistically agree. They're hoping a specialty medical clinic might replace the hospital. There's also talk of starting a charter school to fill the elementary building. They say they'll work to keep Starbuck alive, even if it doesn't have everything it once did.