WADENA —Standing in Wadena’s historic downtown on Wednesday, July 28, Mayor George Deiss began pointing this way and that, listing off the developments that took place over the last year.

His audience was Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, his executive assistant Jamie Ebert and a local reporter. Simon’s goal in visiting that day, as has been his goal in the 40-plus stops he’s made throughout the state so far in 2021, is to ask the burning question of how the community had fared through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this small town of just over 4,000 residents, shutdowns and precautionary measures kept much of the local restaurants and bars shut for weeks at a time. Coffee shops once bustling with loyal patrons were kept quiet. The Cozy Movie Theatre was left to close its three screens down and sold popcorn and fountain drinks to-go as a means of paying their staff. Retail suffered from closures followed by a lack of traffic from customers who just didn’t know if they should leave their homes.

Even so, Simon heard in Wadena, like so many others he has visited, that where the community pulled together, there was not only stability, but growth in the pandemic.

Just going by memory, Deiss listed off a restaurant, The Iron Corral, which opened their doors and tapped their kegs in November 2020, a day later they heard Executive Order 20-96 was coming, restricting social gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus. Happy hour came early, minus the "happy" part. Through support of take out meals and an eventual reopening, the business is now standing strong and continues work on an outdoor seating area.

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Another new business that decided to give it a go during the pandemic was Little Round Still, a distillery of rum, bourbon and vodka. They entered the business scene on Black Friday while the dial was being turned back to limit the spread further. Despite being unable to fully open their tasting room, they made it through and now welcome guests to live music and drink concoctions inside the former JC Penney store.

Wadena Mayor George Deiss (left) meets with Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in the Little Round Still in Wadena, Minn.
Michael Johnson/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Wadena Mayor George Deiss (left) meets with Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in the Little Round Still in Wadena, Minn. Michael Johnson/Wadena Pioneer Journal

Simon entered the distillery and heard from staff that business was good thanks to collaboration in the community. Behind the counter along with liquor made in-house are bags of popcorn made by another Wadena business, Canoe Paddle Kettle Corn; roasted coffee beans from Owly Coffee Roasters, a coffee roaster two blocks away; and barbecue sauce made from a collaboration of their bourbon and sauce from Rose City, a short 30 mile drive to the south.

As the group exited the distillery and walked further downtown, Deiss pointed out a bakery, wellness center, new clothing store, and more, which got their start either during the pandemic or shortly before it started. All survived what’s been seen of the pandemic so far.

Ebert excitedly shared how a visit to Mahnomen earlier in the day had them viewing not just a thriving business sector but new construction ongoing through the pandemic.

“The amount of retail and restaurants downtown is really healthy,” Ebert commented as the group waited to cross a street of steady traffic.

After about 45 minutes of walking Wadena, Simon asked Deiss other questions related to the town's recovery.

Deiss spoke about steps he took to try to keep morale going with a scavenger hunt of letters found downtown, using the "#WadenaStrong" message to promote the good things happening and even asking the community to sing with him and his wife, singing “God Bless America” on Facebook live.

“I’m glad to hear that through businesses helping businesses, individuals with restaurants, doing take out and the PPP money, that you feel that you’ve come through in a solid place after the pandemic,” Simon said.

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“And with a real solid attitude,” Deiss added.

Simon asked further about the attitude toward vaccination.

“In this area, there is probably more hesitancy, you know, concern about it," Deiss said. "There have been a few people that have had bad side effects and in a small community they hear that … so I would say, if you compared the average here to the average in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area, we’re on the lower end (higher hesitancy).”

Wadena County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state with only Todd, Pine and Clearwater counties showing lower rates, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Health. In Wadena County, 47% of those 16 and older have had at least one dose.

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“The themes of community resilience, people helping each other out…” Simon said, those are the things he has been hearing when he sees a community that is flourishing rather than floundering. Simon shared that he and his wife adopted restaurants in their hometown of Hopkins during the pandemic to order even more take-out than usual. While less cooking was good, the Simons still understood the difficulties that COVID measures placed on people. Having two young children in the school system, he said patience has gone a long way.

While much could be said about the good growth going on in town, issues persist. Deiss hears the most from locals about labor and daycare shortage. Simon agreed that the top issues he hears out on the road are daycare, labor and housing shortage. All of which continue to hold back even more growth in those communities.

Simon was on to Long Prairie in Todd County and Alexandria in Douglas County later that day resuming with plans to make as many in-person visits to communities as possible. He also spoke with the Red Lake and White Earth Tribal governments earlier in the day to discuss early voting.