Jodi’s Journal: Back to SoDak reveals new perceptions of Sioux Falls

By Jodi Schwan

Laura Kotelman’s story is the type that often helps Sioux Falls attract new residents – largely because they aren’t so new.

Kotelman grew up near Wall Lake west of the city, graduated from the University of Sioux Falls in 2000 and eventually ended up in Alaska.

Her husband, Paul, grew up outside Chicago.

Their children have one surviving grandparent, who still lives in the Sioux Falls area. Grandma isn’t moving, so the Kotelmans are moving back.

“If we want our kids to grow up with Grandma, we have to move back for more than FaceTime and occasional visits,” she said.

Last year, they sold their house in Alaska and hit the road to see the country. Laura’s job as a project director for a group of federally qualified health centers in Alaska allows her to telecommute, and the kids weren’t in school yet.

Now, they’re looking for a house in the Sioux Falls area and plan to move once they find one. Paul is looking for a job as a registered nurse.

They happened to be in town last weekend and saw the Back to SoDak event advertised on Facebook. They became part of a group of about 70 visitors who went to a brunch hosted by the Sioux Falls Development Foundation or stopped by a designated tent at JazzFest to learn more about opportunities in Sioux Falls and how the city has grown.

“I was excited to see them doing things to drive awareness and bring people to Sioux Falls,” Laura told me.  “I had never been to JazzFest, and that was a lot of fun. It’s a nice event. I was really impressed by the brunch they put on and the thought-out efforts they’re making to connect with people.”

I was impressed, too. The organizers invited me to be one of several speakers at the brunch – setting aside the fact that I did not go “Back to SoDak” but rather moved here from my hometown of Cleveland. It was a fun chance to share what brought me here and what has kept me here.

Brunch at the Back to SoDak event

If I’m being honest, though, I didn’t have the highest expectations for what a brunch might entail at the Denny Sanford Premier Center. I’m pretty sure anything I’ve eaten there has been a finger food. So I have to tell you the staff did a phenomenal job showing these visitors a first-class meal. We all raved about it. They even included an ice sculpture of the state of South Dakota.

“Food is love! Well, we were all given a fabulous dose of love,” one of the guests, Laurie McDowell, told me.

In typical “small-town South Dakota” form, I had just talked to her the day before about her interior design business, which is expanding to Sioux Falls. She came from the Twin Cities for Back to SoDak and said she was glad she did.

“Everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “I was very glad I came. People worked hard to make it such a nice event.”

I want to acknowledge the businesses that sponsored the event: Avera, Fernson Brewing Co., Gunderson’s, Lemonly and Sanford Health as well as the businesses and organizations that offered terrific gift cards and coupons to the guests. You all get asked to contribute in many ways, and this was a valuable opportunity to connect directly with potential residents who offer a great variety of skills.

There were all ages and occupations, from bartenders and bankers to software developers and salespeople. They came from six states, several South Dakota towns and as far away as Norway. Many were interested in the job market. Some wanted to know more about the cost of living and amenities in the city.

“Some of the visitors said they hadn’t been to Sioux Falls in years and were very surprised at the growth and how beautiful the city looked,” said event organizer Lon Clemensen, director of workforce development for the Sioux Falls Development Foundation. “Many also commented on how friendly and helpful the people here are and how that made them feel so comfortable.”

I also want to point out a few pieces of feedback that Laura Kotelman shared with me.

When I asked her about her impressions of how the city has changed in the 17 years since she graduated from USF, she answered first with one word:

“Downtown.”

“For sure,” she continued. “It is radically different. I think that Sioux Falls has done a really good job. The Sanford ($400 million) gift changed things a lot, but they’ve done a lot of work in embracing art and really building on the infrastructure that exists, like the bike trail and recreational items.”

She covered, in a few sentences, the reason why I continually advocate for investments in all three of those areas: downtown, the arts and public recreation. They are critical in attracting a workforce. These are no longer amenities. They are infrastructure, and they matter when someone like this decides on a major move.

She also brought up a couple of points you need to know.

“There’s other things that hold people back from moving back. Like pay and benefits,” she said.

She expects her husband will take a pay cut when they return.

“He’ll most likely get paid less than in Alaska,” she said.

We can talk all we want about the cost-of-living differential, but it’s still important to note the perception here is that financially they feel they will be less-well-off.

And the other element that needs to be addressed is an attitude she has encountered.

Often when she would interact with someone in a store or at an event who learned she was from Alaska and moving back, she said they would respond with an incredulous “why?” or “why would you move here?”

Maybe it’s a “Midwestern humble” thing. Maybe “they don’t realize how it compares to other places,” she said. “But I think that’s something Sioux Falls will have to look at and overcome.”

I agree, and I hate to say I can easily see people responding just as she said — though I don’t know that there’s a magic answer to fixing that. But I think our community leadership needs to know what our front-line community representatives are saying. The honest feedback is extremely valuable.

I hope we continue to offer Back to SoDak-type of events and maybe consider broadening it to meeting people where they are at in other cities where native South Dakotans have moved.

“Many people commented that they definitely thought we should do this again,” Clemensen said. “We are assessing the entire weekend and considering hosting a similar type of event next year, looking at how we could continue to improve it.”

In the meantime, if you know someone considering moving back, I would reach out to the Sioux Falls Development Foundation anyway. There are so many resources to connect people with here that can help support a transition. Bringing people back is a critical element of workforce development. It’s encouraging to see this kind of investment in it.

Jodi’s Journal: Back to SoDak reveals new perceptions of Sioux Falls

Dozens of people considering moving back to South Dakota spent a weekend gathering new impressions of Sioux Falls. Here’s what you need to know about them.

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