Madison Mercantile: When broadband makes community easier (LqP County)

On our trip to Western Minnesota, Mary Magnuson and I stopped in to visit the Madison Mercantile. The folks at the UMVRDC (Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission) had clued us into the interesting things they were doing. And while this isn’t a broadband-forward project, it’s an example of what folks can do when broadband is ample and the community is engaged – in part because they have been connected, even during the pandemic, via broadband.

The Madison Mercantile is a coffee shop, art gallery innovation center built in a rehabbed hardware store. The footprint is huge. We walked in and saw tables people chatting, art and the coffee shop. The proprietor/creator Kris Shelstad immediately apologized for the mess. (She was working on replacing part of a carpet.)  Then she quit what she was doing and gave us the whole tour, with backstory, despite the fact that she had no idea of who we were.

As briefly as possible, Kris is originally from the area. She moved away to Austin TX, joined the army, got married and a couple years ago lost her spouse. That led her back home, but she missed the scene in Austin. So, she decided to create the same opportunities for art and beer and music and community by buying out the old hardware store. She started to rehab it based on the needs of the community, ways to minimize heat bills and her vision. Her vision included creating a space to showcase art left to her from her friend Janice Anderson. Janice’s art is mixed media collage with an eye for color nuances, clever messaging and inherently rural appeal. It feels like through Kris, Janice is helping boost and nurture a local art scene.

Along with a couple of art galleries, the space hosts local musicians and serves as a “third space” community center. You can pop in for coffee or you can host your birthday party. There are spaces for local discussions and classes. In fact, when we were there a group of local entrepreneurs gathered to talk about using social media. (Funny enough, I recognized one entrepreneur from a social media class I taught in the area 10 years ago!)

There’s also a maker space or innovation center. It created itself because retired farmers from the community, who used to hang out at the hardware store kept showing up wondering if Kris needed any help or time to chat. Kris recognized the need and opportunity and made room. There’s also a museum of medical supplies like walkers and wheelchairs, which folks can borrow as needed. Apparently the 90 year old woman, who used to lend these from her home, donated them.

There are also plans for public computer access, a wellness center and Zoom room. If you are in the area, you will have to check it out. It’s the best example of a bottom up solution I’ve seen. Kris told us that she decided that for one year she’d say yes to everything. She has and she’s tired but man is that a cool center and it can’t help but engage community!

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