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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Aberdeen, a great place to be from


Aberdeen was once a shopping center for northeastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota.  It had national brand stores such as Walmart, Target, Kmart, Shopko, Sears, Herbergers, among others, and a functioning downtown area as well as a couple of strip malls.  For a time, it supported a good-sized mall, but the tenant stores come and go.  Many went.  When Northern  State U. students from the area wrote essays about growing up, they often included memories about coming to Aberdeen to shop, dine, attend movies, sport events, and special entertainment events. For the most part, the places of those memories don't exist anymore.  When I first moved to Aberdeen, there were, for example, four mens clothing stores on Main Street downtown.  No such enterprises exist in town now.  

Aberdeen still has a Target and a Walmart and two locally owned supermarkets.   In the retail sector, Kohl's and Marshall's are recent additions.   But the chamber of commerce and other promotional organizations say little about the town's advantages because most of their efforts are devoted to denying that the town is shrinking commercially.  People in Aberdeen tend to drive the four-lane highways to Sioux Falls or Fargo or cross-country to the Twin Cities for their serious shopping.

The buying habits within a community change with the times, the fashions, and the shifts of populations.  Aberdeen's changes are trending downward.  It has lost stores such as Kmart and Shopko recently.

This summer marked the closing of Presentation College.  The college leaders said the remoteness of the town was one of the factors in their decision to close the college.  It is somewhat difficult for students to get to Aberdeen.  It's not on the way to anywhere, and is not much of a destination in its own right, a fact that community leaders are loathe to admit.  Aberdeen's most important asset at this juncture is Northern State University.

The city is purchasing the Presentation athletic facilities, including an inflatable dome, to add to its parks and recreation program.  The academic and residential facilities remain vacant at this juncture, reminders of a lost educational enterprise.

 The town has a history of being abandoned by enterprises.  Control Data closed its operation in Aberdeen which had 1,340 employees at one time.  Some employers have merged with or been acquired by large companies, and seem to follow a pattern of shipping the operations performed in Aberdeen to other locations.  Such is the case with Hub City, Inc., a manufacturer of transmission parts which had operated in Aberdeen for 125 years before its corporate owner, Regal Beloit Corp., which is now Regal Rexnord, closed it down.  Molded Fiberglass for which a special building was put up for manufacturing blades for wind-powered electricity generators left town in 2021.

Businesses have noted the difficulty in finding and keeping competent employees, and some have closed because of it.  This was cited as the closing of a Max and Irma's restaurant.  A personnel manager who was a neighbor of mine complained that as soon as people established good credentials at his firm, they would use them to obtain jobs in other places.  He eventually followed suit.  Employable people are aware of the fickleness with which corporations have treated Aberdeen, and choose to invest their energies where companies offer a more stable work environment.

Public transportation to and from Aberdeen is scarce.  The town gets its nickname, Hub City, from the fact that five railroads once converged here. There are no passenger trains now, but a couple of BNSF freight trains rumble through a few times a day.   A bus service is listed as having a stop at an automotive repair shop, but I haven't seen one traveling through town recently.  Through federal subsidies, Sky West has airplane flights to and from Minneapolis a couple times a day at some inconvenient times.  If you google for the flight schedule, however, you won't find  one.  Aberdeen does have a 4-lane expressway east for 75 miles to I-29, and 2-lane highways in other directions. An automobile is essential for getting in and out of Aberdeen.  And many people have chosen to drive the heck out of here.

The current population of Aberdeen is listed as 28,500, up from 26,100 in 2010.  While Aberdeen, along with the rest of the state, has shown growth, there has been some fluctuation in the town's expansion.   The population took some hits ten years ago when a meat packing venture failed as part of a scandal involving the government EB-5 program.  But Aberdeen is affected by a situation that is statewide.  It was brought up at a meeting of the governor's economic advisers:  “Trying to keep our talent in the state, rather than going elsewhere, is the continual challenge we’ll all have.”

The outmigration of educated and talented people is shifting the population in ways that are indicated in the political make up of the state by voter registration:  Republican, 302,066; Democratic, 148,136; Libertarian, 2,943; independent, 89,180.  Republicans are more than double the number of Democrats.  Just a few years ago, Democrats held all three federal offices, the one House of Representative seat and both Senate seats.  With today's political makeup, it doesn't look possible to elect a Democrat to anything.  That applies to Aberdeen and Brown County.

Political "scientists" castigate the Democratic Party for the Republican domination of state's political offices.  They accuse it of slovenliness.  They fail to acknowledge that the outmigration from the state is led by people of the liberal bent who wish to escape the mean-minded stodginess of which the so-called political scientists are a part.  The governor's advisers, at least, note the problem.   The dominance of South Dakota governance by Republicans is a reflection of the outmigration.   Liberals tend to flee from the state for political and cultural reasons.  And that is true for Aberdeen.  Many of the younger people I encounter are focused on getting out of town and living their lives elsewhere. They tend to be of a liberal mentality.

With two colleges in town and their associated activities of sports and cultural activities, Aberdeen was an educational center.  It boasted both a public and a private Catholic higher education facilities.  The closing of Presentation College removes a basis for that claim.  Northern State University has stepped up to take over some of the programs Presentation offered, such as nursing.  Northern has almost  a 7 percent enrollment increase over last year, some of which is likely the absorption of local Presentation students. 

For those who find the politics and culture oppressive, there is some comfort in knowing there are other places and other cultures to go to.  Higher education offers a passport to those places.  The talent is here, looking for some place to go.  Aberdeen is a great place to be from.  That seems to be its future.

Monday, October 16, 2023

How to show children that democracy doesn't work

It's a South Dakota story.  A woman and her children returned to their Aberdeen apartment from a family vacation in the mountains and found an eviction notice on their door.  The issuer of the notice claimed the woman hadn't paid her rent.  She went to the building manager with her bank account statement to show that her rent check for the month had cleared, and to make preparations to move. However, upon checking her records the manager found that the rent was in fact paid up.  Just a mistake, she said.

The children did not accept that easy dismissal.  They regarded the eviction notice as an attempt to put them out on the street.  No dismissal or apology or cajoling from their mother could change the malice and menace that it represented to them.  So now they live in a place they hate because, they think, its managers intended to get rid of them. To the children, it signifies the kind of world they live in, a world that poses constant obstacles for them.  Children see the world as it treats them, not through the prisms of justification that we adults do.  

The single mother of the children says she will probably move to settle down the children, but to do so will be expensive and disruptive to their lives.  The kids have developed an adverse attitude toward the place; they don't want to live in a place that has indicated it doesn't want them.  Teachers note the perspicacity of children.  Kids see the realities and motives of the world,  and they don't believe or trust adult efforts to brush them aside or placate the children. They say many of their students confront realities and see through the artifices we erect to disguise the malevolent  attitudes and cerebral incompetence of adults.

To be lawful, evictions must be processed through a court, but South Dakota is notably partial to landlords in applying rules governing rental property.  The execution of an eviction is supposed to be done through an order of the court.  While the rules mention guaranteeing due process for renters, they don't specify how to implement that process.  Obtaining the court sanction to evict seems to be a routine, mechanical process.  The mother said in this case the landlord did not seem to have followed the procedure.  She simply asserted her authority, and in this state, no one challenges it.

I do not know the family involved personally. I know of the situation through a civil rights organization I have worked with and supported over the years.  It is monitoring the case.  The children's teachers observed how disturbed the children were and the school informed social workers about them, as they were so distracted that they couldn't concentrate on their school work.  

Civil rights leaders' concern about incidents like this eviction notice are based on the effects they have on children.  For kids to acquire respect and appreciation for American liberty, equality, justice, and equal opportunity, they have to be shown in their daily lives how those qualities of life work.  They have to have the principles of democratic beneficence applied to them.  The children in this family feel menaced by a legal procedure, although it was withdrawn.  They are wary about a threat that seems to lie in wait for an opportunity to strike again.

To those children, the adult world is not something that can be trusted.  That kind of distrust does not portend well for the future of our republic.  What they believe in the future will depend on how carefully the principles of our democracy are applied to them now.  Even evictions must be carried out in a spirit of good will.  Taping an eviction notice on a door expresses ill will.  And that is an expression of our society.


Saturday, October 14, 2023

Where are the Democrats?

Those who monitor and comment on politics in South Dakota tend to ignore one factor that significantly affects the political climate.  That is the outmigration:  who leaves the state, how many, and why.

As a South Dakota professor, I was aware that a goal of many, perhaps most,  students was to find work and life in other places.  At one point, the college president recognized this and sought to use it as an appeal for attracting students.  He started using a slogan for the university as being "a gateway institution,"  a college that prepares one to find and make a living in other places.   The suggestion that a state college would encourage its students to study as preparation for life in other states enraged politicians, and the regents severely reprimanded  the college president for making that appeal.  He quickly ended its usage.

But the shifts of population out of the state are a fact of life.   The opportunities to apply a college education in a job within the state of South Dakota are very limited.  That college president was concerned about where college students could find positions where they could utilize their educations.  He was troubled about the "brain drain" in South Dakota, but to use their educations, many students had to go to other states, and the state lost their knowledge and talents.

Political strategists recognize the implication of the brain drain for the state.   People with  intellectual tendencies gravitate toward liberalism.  And when they seek out places where they can work with their brains, they take their talents with them.  South Dakota identifies itself as a conservative state, but to many "conservative" means "backward," resistance to liberating influences. There is an outmigration of intellectual talent when students graduate from high school and go to college in other states.  There is another when college students in the state graduate and move to other places to utilize their degrees.  What political operatives fail to realize is the reason that there are so many more Republicans than Democrats in South Dakota is that young liberals leave the state for better opportunities and more progressive cultures.  And the more conservative the state gets in its politics, the more determined young liberals are to leave it.   Staid residents often say to critics of the state that if they don't like it here, they should leave.   And that's precisely what they do.

For many years, as an officer in a political party I maintained a mailing list for the Democrats in my area.  I noted a steady decrease in members as their names were removed for reasons of attrition.  When people left, they weren't replaced.  People looked for work out of state.    They chose other places for retirement.  Many just chose to move.  Whatever the motives, the decline in membership was striking, and when we officers reviewed the membership roll, we determined that the decline did not come from a loss of interest, as we had feared, but from a general loss of people in those categories that comprised the active membership.  When we consulted population studies, we found that our region of the country--the upper midwest-- had one of the nation's largest losses of population in the productive age group.  We also noted that some communities have lost facilities run by organizations which were important parts of the of communities.  Aberdeen has lost facilities run by groups like the American Legion and VFW, the Elks and Eagles lodges, and has lost retail outlets such as Shopko, Kmart, and Herbergers.  The population numbers seem fairly stable, but a closer analysis  shows that those leaving are the creative, ambitious, more intellectual people; those left behind are those who tend to avoid stimulation, venture, and change.

Current news in Aberdeen includes reports of further decline.  The school system has 59 fewer students this term.  The Burger King, a national franchise in every community of any size, has closed.  

The Republican Party has almost a total lock on government.  But that's not because its policies and messages are most appealing.  Or because it is more deft at organizing.  It's because the Democrats are leaving.  The party has trouble finding candidates and people who can martial an effective campaign.   That's because the people who could fill those roles are off  somewhere physically or mentally working on creating more vital and relevant lives

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States