There’s last-minute talk of rearranging the picnic tables at Milford Remme Memorial Park, and an urgent phone call about traffic cones to block off Main Street. On this warm summer evening in the town of Hardwick, volunteers are accounting for hotdogs and buns, scrubbing down the concession stand counter and taping up signs in a flurry of final preparations.
Tonight, they’re celebrating. It’s Jubilee Days, the annual town festival, but this party is a special addition. It’s a dedication of upgrades to the park. With the help of an Age Friendly Communities grant, there’s now a sidewalk to the shelter area and restrooms, making them more accessible for wheelchairs, walkers and strollers. The restrooms have new raised toilets, grab bars and a skid-proof epoxy floor. A new handicap-accessible bucket swing hangs in the playground, and nearby is a new enclosure where kids can play gaga ball. The Hardwick American Legion added to the project, with money to install a new pickleball court and two new park benches.
“These projects have revitalized our park and brought new energy into our community. The park’s usage has increased this summer, and we are sure it’s going to be a family favorite for years to come,” local volunteer and community leader Alice Hansen told the crowd gathered for the dedication.
The Age Friendly Communities program helps small towns in Minnesota become better places to live for people of all ages. The program helps communities identify existing assets that are age friendly, as well as areas where they can improve. Grants of up to $10,000 are available to help communities implement projects that will make a positive impact for everyone.
The program is led by the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging, with funding from Southwest Initiative Foundation. So far, 19 communities have participated, completing local projects to improve things like accessibility, nutrition and social activities for older adults.
Surveys sent to Hardwick area residents indicated they were interested in improving their health and recreational opportunities. The town has no walking trail or fitness center. Enhancing the park was the winning idea, with the goal to increase its use. The Age Friendly Communities survey also inspired a group exercise class twice a week in the community building.
“When our communities support older adults in healthy and successful aging, everyone in southwest Minnesota benefits,” said SWIF Vice President of Community Impact Nancy Fasching.
Age Friendly Communities is deployed by a local Community Leadership Team. In Hardwick, that was Alice Hansen, Joan Kindt, Tammy Johnson and Lorna Bryan. This core group of volunteers is a tightknit circle of friends.
“Our kids grew up together. We all go on vacation together. We all kind of have a good pulse on what’s going on with each other,” said Tammy, who raised a family with her husband in Hardwick and serves as the city’s clerk.
Volunteers are the engine of civic life in any town, but especially in small towns. Research by Ben Winchester at University of Minnesota Extension estimates that one in 34 must serve in leadership positions in some rural areas, compared to one in every 143 residents in major metropolitan counties. At last count, Hardwick’s census was 191 with 94 households.
“When you have a town of 200 or less, you all have to pitch in,” said Joan, who is the fire department secretary and treasurer in addition to a job with the Minnesota Department of Health. “Everybody has different talents. We just pool them together.”
Joan lives right by the park and can hear the thump of basketballs on the court all day long as she works from her basement office. She’s also in the weekly pickleball league, which she said is well attended.
“People come from quite a distance to play,” Joan said. Lorna was born and raised in Hardwick, where she attended the nearby elementary school, now closed and turned into a residence. Talking about the park, Lorna notes the baseball diamond that used to host league games and is still maintained.
“I played softball here for 40 years,” said Lorna, who works as a church secretary and, Joan points out, is a great organizer with an enduring passion for the town.
Alice is a retiree who gives her time to volunteering. She grew up in nearby Luverne and likes to see the many young families who make Hardwick their home today.
“You make (your town) important to you. You want to keep making things better for you and for the younger generation. We need to have different people involved.”Alice Hansen, Hardwick Age Friendly Communities Committee
New community leaders are stepping up to the plate. Anna Haas came to the park dedication with her son Karsten, who is 9. The pair pitched a baseball back and forth while they waited for the party to start.
“Hardwick has always been a part of our family heritage. Now that I have two young kids of my own, I want to continue to build this to be a more family friendly community,” Anna said.
Anna joined the Hardwick Community Club three years ago and is active in the local Denver-Go-Getters 4-H Club. Her husband, Thomas Haas, is mayor of Hardwick. In small towns like hers, Anna said grant programs like Age Friendly Communities are key to community improvements, noting there are also area community foundations and funds that donate to the annual town festival and other projects.
“It’s great to see all the improvements the Age Friendly Communities grant has helped with. We really appreciate the opportunities this funding creates,” Anna said.
More opportunities are on the horizon for Hardwick. The city recently purchased nine acres for a new development to be divided into three tracts. One is reserved for a new firehall and township hall, and there will be one for commercial development. The third will be zoned residential.
“This is exciting for our little town,” Tammy said. “The possibilities and opportunities that come with this land are going to breathe a breath of fresh air into Hardwick and the surrounding community for generations to come.”