Revitalize Martin “Our Town” grassroots effort seeing success

By Jonni Joyce

Close to two dozen people met in the commons area of Bennett County High School on Wednesday, September 6, to hear an update from the community members involved in the grassroots movement to improve Martin known as Revitalize Martin “Our Town”.

“This is my hometown,” said Mikayla O’Bryan in her opening statement. “We know what it used to be and what it is now,” said O’Bryan. “This is about what it can be. We want to make it the best community it can be.”

O’Bryan spoke briefly, welcoming members of the community and laying out the night’s agenda that included committee reports from the various work groups.

Revitalize Martin “Our Town” is a grassroots organization comprised of local members of the community that have volunteered their time to serve on topic committees or workgroups that address basic areas of improvement for Martin and Bennett County. The organization is led from the ground up, rather than a top down organizational structure with volunteers participating in workgroups identifying improvements and implementing solutions often partnering with local governments and stakeholder groups to move forward on their ideas.

Kari O’Neill with the SDSU Extension Office in Bennett County has helped to coordinate the efforts of the volunteers. O’Neill is a Community Vitality Field Specialist facilitator who provides direction to communities through a program offered by SDSU Extension called Marketing Hometown America. Marketing Hometown America empowers communities to create a vision to attract new residents. Designed as a tool to create dialogue that moves people toward action, the process can be the spark to help a rural community look at itself in a new way. Marketing Hometown America engages communities to gather a variety of ideas through a community kickoff event, four small-group gatherings and a large-group planning forum. According to the program description, the program works to help a community create a welcoming spirit to attract new residents, learn what new residents look for in a rural community, discover local assets that attract new residents, and implement a marketing plan.

O’Neill was approached by local volunteers interested in the program. The first meeting had fifteen to twenty local residents who participated in an activity titled “Good Things Happening in the Community.” Small group dialog meetings or talking circles followed. By May of 2022, the group was ready for a large community meeting that was held in the Activity Center. Attendees voted on ideas to pursue and created six committees or work groups to pursue implementation of the ideas. Facilitators of each work group/committee were established.

“This is very grassroots,” said O’Neill.

The decentralized nature of the group requires agreement on ideas and collaboration.

“The committees were on their own,” said O’Neill.

It was then that the magic began to happen and the work began. This past Wednesday, the committee conveners/facilitators provided their updates.

“I like to call them community conveners,” said O’Neill.

O’Neill explained their only job was to call people together for a meeting so the ideas and information could flow.

“I’m the community coach,” said O’Neill. “My job is to hold the conveners accountable.”

To do that, O’Neil would meet with the conveners every six to eight weeks to keep everyone focused and moving forward.

The first convener to speak at Wednesday’s meeting was Carrie Larson of the Branding Committee. Larson explained the task of the committee was to create a representation of the people in the community and the committee chose the sunflower. They have been successful in getting the water tower painted with the sunflower, local businesses and government buildings painting sunflowers in their windows and they had a booth at the Bennett County Fair. The committee is working on an official logo and looking at funding for creating products.

Chris O’Bryan spoke for the Community Clean up committee. O’Bryan informed the audience that the committee has been able to partner with local entities like the Bennett County Hospital, the school system, Martin Fire and Rescue, and OST Solid Waste. Through these partnerships, the volunteers were able to get trash cans on Main Street and the bike path, host community clean up days, and weed and grass mowing. O’Bryan wants to bring the Department of Transportation “Adopt a Highway” program to Martin.

Kari O’Neill spoke about hiring a part time Economic Development Director for the area. She explained how this has been successful in other towns like Wall, Philip, and Wessington Springs. O’Neill advised that this committee needs a leader and exploration of funding for the position.

Danielle McDonnell spoke on the committee responsible for youth mentorship. This committee is in search of a leader to help establish a youth mentorship program.

Sarah Harris spoke for Theatre in the Park committee and explained that they had equipment to run movies but need help with funding because movies are expensive due to the royalties required to show the films.

Tauna Ireland spoke briefly on the wellness committee and Anthony Kathol presented the work done by the sidewalk, curb and gutter committee. Kathol, with the help of the South Dakota Department of Transportation developed a six phase plan to bring sidewalks to Martin. He spoke passionately about the dangers to the children at the main intersection of Highway 73 and Highway 18. Kathol partnered with a grant writer with the Black Hills Council of Local governments to write the grant to fund the project. Kathol presented to the Martin City Council and received a commitment from the city to fund their portion of a grant that would pay for phase one of the project. The cost of the project is $887,000 for phase one. Kathol also presented to the Bennett County Board of Commissioners and received a letter of support.

“This is about developing safe pedestrian corridors,” said Kathol. “It’s about the children.”

Kathol will know something in early 2024 if Martin has been awarded the grant.

The final activity of the night was led by O’Neill. It was a ripple mapping exercise where the audience could provide the answers to fill out the ripple circles.The inner most circle represented the actions that have been taken over the last year by the entire community of Martin. The exterior circle represented the connection to the types of capital in the community. After creating a web of connections from the actions to the capital, O’Neil asked the attendees what was the most significant positive change in Martin over the past year. The community answered that having a plan and goals that we all can work on was the most significant positive change.

The community was complimentary of the Martin City Council’s actions taken on code enforcement and removing dilapidated buildings from the city.

All of the presenters related that more volunteers are needed, more leaders are needed to drive committee work, and it was imperative to get more people involved.

Volunteer driven and community member led, this grassroots movement has made significant strides in public private partnerships that will enrich the entire community. 

Anyone wanting to get involved by volunteering can contact Kari O’Neil at the Bennett County Extension Office, 605-685-6972

502 Second Avenue, Martin, SD 57551 • 605-685-6866 •