Community Stewardship Initiatives

Over the last few years we’ve come to realize that the limiting agent to community progress was not resources but leadership.  To be more specific, the thing that holds most communities back is the inability of their leaders to work together and to help the community agree on a common agenda.  The challenges and opportunities facing communities are too big and too complicated for organizations, and governments, to go it alone.

Our response has been to develop stewards’ councils to help communities position themselves to succeed in the future.  Beginning in Bemidji (Bemidji Leads!) and spreading to Park Rapids (Progress Park Rapids) and Blackduck (Blackduck 20/20) the results have been impressive.  (We’ve also begun to work outside our Region in different parts of the state.  Visit the Center for Community Stewardship website to find out more about these efforts.)  Following is a summary of each of the in-region efforts.


Bemidji Leads!

Bemidji Leads! is the Headwaters RDC’s flagship community stewardship effort.  The Headwaters RDC undertook this ambitious effort in 2003 to strategically position the Bemidji community to compete in the future.  The objectives of this effort were three-fold:

  • To forge agreement among a broad spectrum of the Bemidji community on a bold, compelling strategic direction for the area
  • To identify specific critical issues, strategic initiatives to address those issues and to move toward that future
  • To develop and nurture a broad-based leadership council for the area that can be effective at realizing the community strategic direction

Bemidji Leads!’ stewards worked for over a year on Bemidji’s destiny.  But this wasn’t a group of leaders making community choices in a vacuum.  Rather, they listened very carefully to the values and aspirations of community members.  Public gatherings, organizational meetings, and a community perception survey were all utilized to gauge what makes the Bemidji community tick.

From that information, the following destiny was created:

Through intentional, collective action, Bemidji will be:

  • A healthy community, successfully balancing regional center amenities and small town beauty and character;
  • A vibrant economic center recognized for its innovation, creativity and knowledge;
  • A social, cultural, recreational and educational magnet;
  • An embracing, culturally diverse community
  • A people committed to shared prosperity and long-term community stewardship; and
  • The star of the north, a national model of community success.

Once the community defined the destiny, the stewards quickly shifted into a new phase…acting on the destiny.  They determined there were 17 critical areas, called destiny drivers, that the Bemidji area needed to address in order for the community to reach its dreams.  Among the destiny drivers are:

  • Bemidji will plant 10,000 trees a year for the next 10 years.
  • By 2015 the performance of our students (PK-16) will rank in the top five in the state.
  • There will be a multi-purpose event center in Bemidji by 2008.
  • Bemidji will have the state’s best trail network by 2015.
  • Bemidji will have the lowest incidence of drug and alcohol abuse in the state by 2015.

The destiny drivers chosen are bold and compelling…and can only be accomplished by the entire community-public and private-coming together and working together.  A complete listing of the destiny drivers can be found here.

Now in its sixth year, Bemidji Leads! Feels like it is entering a new, more mature, phase.  It has been recognized nationally with two different awards (by the Alliance for Regional Stewardship and the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO)), was singled out by Governor Pawlenty for its work, and has played an instrumental role in shaping the agenda of the Bemidji community.  Its next challenge is to maintain the energy of the community leaders, make sure it is connected in positive ways to the community, and to not rest on its laurels.  After all, community-building is a never-ending process.

To keep informed of Bemidji Leads! events, please visit their website at

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Progress Park Rapids

While Bemidji Leads! gets most of the attention, Park Rapids’ stewardship effort, Progress Park Rapids, may be the Region’s best-kept secret.  Over the last four years, community leaders have found ways to align their resources, craft a common community agenda, and begin the process of learning to work together for a better future.

Progress Park Rapids started in January of 2005 with 100 people coming together in a community discussion.  They came together to learn about Progress Park Rapids and to be challenged to be stewards of the Park Rapids community.  And the Park Rapids community has responded.

Progress Park Rapids is an effort by a group of stewards to move the community forward.  The charter of Progress Park Rapids is clear:

“The Progress Park Rapids stewards group is a diverse group of over 20 community members committed to the long-term well being of the greater Park Rapids community.  We exist to create the environment for the greater Park Rapids community to succeed.  We will accomplish this by:

  • Engaging the greater Park Rapids community to collectively define its desired future;
  • Identifying strategies and action steps that ensure progress toward being a successful community; and
  • Being the long-term place for ideas to land and be nurtured that lead the greater Park Rapids community forward.

We are committed to acting as stewards of the greater community not only within the stewards group but in the organizations and projects we serve as well.  This means we represent the greater good over our own personal interest or agenda.  We will work together and challenge the Park Rapids community to do the same.”

The results of its work to date have been impressive: a downtown redevelopment effort is underway, a school levy referendum recently passed, the community is ready to landscape TH 34 through town, a new Parks and Trails Plan is being implemented, a new Economic Development Commission has been formed, and a major growth management initiative is being implemented.  All of these efforts were led by local leaders that found power in working together on a common agenda.

To keep informed of Progress Park Rapids events, please visit their website at

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Blackduck 20/20

Can the community stewardship model work in a community smaller than Park Rapids or Bemidji?  Can local leaders, with fewer resources, but with just as much passion for their town as their counter parts in the “big city” make a difference by banding together?  Blackduck is on the verge of finding out.

The process Blackduck used to agree on its future is similar to what was used in Bemidji and Park Rapids, but the results are very different.  Blackduck is positioning itself as a terrific satellite community and its goals reflect that aspiration.

Visit to keep informed of this small town stewardship effort.


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