List of the Reasons that Northfield Made the List

TheGoodLifeInMinnesotaNorthfield, MN was recently named as one of the Top Ten Small Towns in the country by Livability, placing second on the list.  But what earned Northfield this high ranking?  Let’s look at the assets and amenities cited in the piece.

In the order mentioned, they are Charming, Quirky, DJJD, Noontime Organ Recitals, Winter Walk, Higher Income Growth, Proximity to Medical Care, Great Schools, Abundance of Parks, Farmers Market, High Community Involvement, Excellent Quality of Life, Natural Beauty, Cannon River, Historic Downtown, Historical Architecture, Baked Goods, Vegetables, Artwork and Crafts (at the Riverwalk Market Fair), Anglers Kayaking, Canoeing, and Fishing (Bluegill, Walleye, and Northern Pike), Farms, Apple Orchards, Small Lakes, St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges (and their Christmas Festivals, Lectures, Theaters, Art Galleries, Continuing Education), Cowling Arboretum (Excellent Place to Hike, Run, Ski, and Fish) and a 15-Mile Trail System Ranked One of the Best Places in the Country to Run, Mill Towns Trail through Downtown and Sechler Park, and Cross Country Ski[ing] on Trails at Carleton College.

It’s a long list.  So what does it mean?

“Charming” has often been mentioned in the comments about the award.  Perhaps “Quirky” is more important.  It certainly is more differentiating within the market.

The list mentions a lot of events: historic, artistic, cultural, and business.  Are we talking about “Quality of Life”?  It mentions higher incomes, quality medical care, great schools, abundance of parks, and farmers markets…perhaps a bit quirky with artwork and crafts.  Yeah, we’re talking about “Quality of Life”…Northfield-style.  Then there’s that high community involvement, so maybe our unique quality of life is a bit quirky.

Many of the events cited in the piece take place in downtown Northfield, MN.  The Cannon River runs through it and historic architecture adorns it.  At the Mayor’s Summit on Economic Development a year or so ago, one of the independent economic development professionals on the panel said that Northfield’s greatest asset was its quality of life.  He also noted that downtown was a big part of that quality.

In fact, the list repeatedly references assets such as natural beauty, the Cannon River, the historic downtown, and historical architecture.  Is this the natural and built environment of a quality life?  Arts and crafts and artisan foods, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing…these are some of the things and some of the activities that we place within that environment.  Downtown is a key piece of that environment, where the natural elements and the built elements come together.

The Four Foresighted Founding Fathers of the NDDC, Bardwell Smith, Brett Reese, Jim Braucher, and Keith Covey based the organization on on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program.  This comprehensive approach has led to a wide variety of collaborations and partnerships over the years, with a variety of stakeholders, including residential and commercial, artistic and economic, and historic and environmental interests.

For almost 15 years, the NDDC has been working to generate additional incremental investment, both private and public, in our most effective amenities and most powerful assets, the same amenities and assets that earned Northfield the silver medal among the nation’s small towns.  The unifying place, the center of our networks, the heart of the community is our historic, scenic, artistic, active, and authentic downtown.

Let’s remember the assets and amenities that earned the silver medal.  Let’s continue to advocate for incremental additional investment in these assets.

…and maybe we should print up some bumper stickers that say “Keep Northfield Quirky”.



One thought on “List of the Reasons that Northfield Made the List

  1. When our family moved to Northfield 50 years ago, we knew very little about the town. In the decades since then, I have often said how lucky we were to end up here. It is a perfect place to raise children and, as I am now learning, a perfect place to retire. And, it is a lot more than “Charming and Quirky.”

    Our kids benefited from the strong public school system where they were challenged and prepared for further education and for careers. The schools were small enough so friendships formed during those days have endured across the years. Though jobs within them have changed over time, two colleges, the hospital and a number of businesses provide employment for many local citizens. Others commute to jobs elsewhere, but the town doesn’t feel like a bedroom community. Although it has grown, there is still a small town feel and one of the places one meets old friends is at the grocery store. Downtown events like the community band concerts, River Walk Market Fair and Taste of Northfield enhance the feeling of community.

    A strong theme over the years has been community involvement with the creation of institutions like the Northfield Arts Guild, the Historical Society, NDDC and most recently, the YMCA. There are many more, of course. These were founded, developed and supported by citizens who saw a need, created an organization to meet the need and reached out in the community for support. Talented, committed individuals have built upon the vision of the founders, making these and other organizations the assets that help enrich the lives of many and that make Northfield the “quirky, charming” place it is.

    In the public sphere, the city of Northfield benefits from the informed advice of around 18 advisory groups assuring broader ownership of our civic institutions, programs and assets. For example, the Arts and Culture Commission has commissioned poetry that is imbedded in sidewalks throughout downtown. Because of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Northfield has a wider array of housing options than when we arrived 50 years ago. And the public library has made incremental changes over time with the result it serves as much more than a place to borrow books. Is yet another strong community amenity, thanks to wise professional leadership and devoted and skilled volunteers.

    I’ve seen many changes in Northfield since our first years. Not without some dissention, the community has ultimately responded to outside forces positively. When retail commerce went through significant changes with the evolution of retail options like Mall of America, the Medford Mall, and the planting of Target on Highway 3, dedicated citizens came forward to work with the downtown merchants, the city and others to weather the change with the result that downtown Northfield not only retains its historic appearance, it boasts places to shop and dine and is a regional destination. The NDDC is one more example of citizen action toward constructive change.

    Good communication creates community, and local media has changed with the time so that we stay connected.
    Traditional media like the Northfield News now has both print and Internet readers. Radio KYMN has weathered some changes over time and now has both a broadcast and internet presence. The station reports local news and draws from local talent for various programs. It provides streamed (and archived) meetings of city council and other city committees. is a platform for local announcements and stories.

    The Cannon River, a natural amenity, thanks partly to prodding by Maggie Lee, it finally received the focus it deserves with the Riverside Park, River Walk, and a number of outdoor dining spots. This has revitalized the downtown. Created by visionary citizens during the nation’s bicentennial, the Historical Society draws visitors nationwide and from foreign countries to the restored bank raided by the James Gang. In partnership with the city, some citizens are working to relocate the historic train depot in order to develop a transit center. Passenger train service terminated about the time I moved to town, but there is talk about restoring it. And, there is strong interest in making Northfield a destination for bicyclists. These, and other efforts, reflect the commitment to the city by its residents, and give it the deserved reputation as a lively, attractive destination.

    Quirky? Charming? Yes indeed. And this doesn’t happen by accident. It is the result of dedicated, involved, imaginative citizens who, over the decades, have met change with new ideas and solutions. We can’t stop now. As Ross suggests: “Let’s continue to advocate for incremental additional investment in these assets.”

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