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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.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States