Perham’s area businesses continue to thrive, but more can still be done to attract and retain workers. That was the main focus of the Perham Economic Development Authority’s annual retreat at Lakeside Event Center last Wednesday.

Chuck Johnson, director of the Economic Development Authority, started his 16th retreat (and final one, as he will retire in April) by saying the event is always about celebrating Perham.

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“Perham always has a lot to celebrate. It’s never a challenge putting it together,” he said of the retreat. “The challenge is how can we get the whole thing squeezed into the event!”

After Johnson’s introduction, Perham-Dent School Superintendent Mitch Anderson took the stage to offer a 6-month “checkup” on the new high school, which just opened this past fall.

“I can speak for our students, staff, community members and those that have been it, it’s been extremely positive,” Anderson said. “I’m still looking for that one thing we didn’t get right. There are no regrets whatsoever.”

Anderson praised the architects at BHH Partners for their help in designing the school, which he said is pushing education forward.

“The way education is presented compared to 100 years ago is extremely different,” he said. “BHH has helped immensely. They don’t get to walk away from this project when it’s all done; they’re dropping their kids off at our school.”

Anderson said it’s too early to tell if enrollment will be directly affected by the new building, but emphasized that it’s a selling point when families are planning to move to the area and are shopping around for schools.

The school’s “wow factor” has drawn school leaders and other interested people from communities across the state to come and tour the facility, Anderson said.

“The jaw starts dropping when they get out of the car, it drops a little more in the commons, and it drops a little more in the gym,” Anderson said of touring superintendents.

He said he’s often asked how Perham-Dent was able to build the high school and also make upgrades to other buildings in the district for $45 million.

“We hit the sweet spot - interest rates and steel prices were low,” he explained. “We couldn’t have timed it any better. It’s going to serve us well the next couple of decades.”

Before recapping all of Perham’s new business and development, Johnson roughly estimated the last decade of industrial projects in town, including projects at Shearers, Kit Masters, Bongards, Perham Health and KLN, which added up to $340 million.

“People ask me, ‘What is it about Perham that works so well?’ I always say, ‘Leadership,’” Johnson said. “We have way more than our share of strong leaders, people that get their hands dirty. They open their wallets and make things happen. Not many communities can pull all those things together.”

Keynote speaker Ryan Pesch from the University of Minnesota Extension focused on dispelling the negative narratives of rural communities.

“We’re our worst enemies,” Pesch said of the so-called ‘brain drain’ that results from young people leaving their small hometowns to take jobs in metropolitan areas. “We ask them to leave, in some respects.”

While it's true that young people often leave to get an education and find work, Pesch said upon closer examination, there’s a ‘brain gain’ among people ages 30 to 55.

“There’s very strong evidence there’s newcomers that are entering most parts of rural America in their prime earning years,” Pesch said. “There’s a lot more people in this range than we would’ve thought.”

The top three reasons people move back to rural communities are the simple pace of life, safety and low cost of housing, according to an Extension survey.

“Surprisingly, a job is not in the top five,” Pesch said. “People move for these quality of life reasons. They just want a better life for their family and children. Even if they’re taking the risk of not having full employment, or employment at the same salary they had before.”

Moving forward, the challenge will become meeting the needs of expansion in terms of people, Pesch said.

“If it’s a challenge to hire now, it isn’t getting any easier,” he said.

By the year 2040, natural population growth will hit zero statewide, according to Pesch.

“In order to hold the same size, we need net migration into the community to hold constant,” he said.

The population increase will account for a $5 million to $30 million boost to the local economy, but more customers requires more employees to provide services, Pesch said.

“This is the thing that’s going to be the difference in making a community successful in the next 10 to 20 years,” Pesch said. “As we move forward, the issue with people matters, if we continue to grow and keep our businesses healthy.”

We need to stop thinking of people as widgets that fill a position, Pesch said: “We are people that live in a community, not an economy.”

The retreat wrapped with a panel featuring Arvig President Allen Arvig, Vice President and COO David Arvig, and Director of Business Development and Sales Dave Schornack.

Allen Arvig said the Arvig business began in Perham in 1950 when his parents, Royale and Eleanor, bought the Perham Telephone Company from Olga Weickert for $40,000.

“It was a magneto system,” he said. “You picked up the phone, cranked the handle and waited for an operator to answer.”

“There’s been a history of growth since the day we started,” he added. “My family believed if you weren’t going to grow, you weren’t going to survive.”