The people of Milbank, South Dakota, take the word “community” to heart. Their aim is to move the community forward, generation after generation, while honoring its past.
Rhonda Preller, the leader of the Milbank-Area Retired Teachers Association, is well-equipped to talk about the city's past and future. She grew up in Milbank, but moved away more than 30 years ago, and taught for 25 years in Texas. She returned home frequently to visit family, and following an early retirement, she moved back so her daughter could attend high school in Milbank. In retirement, Preller is busier than ever, working on behalf of the town she knows and loves. She’s part of an active group of leaders who are always keeping their eyes open for new opportunities that promote progress.
“When I was a kid, we used to buzz around Milbank on bikes,” says Preller. “We'd like to keep it that way. We’re focused on parks, safety and walkability. We have made improvements to our Main Street. We have an incredible fitness center External Site where people of all ages gather. For a town of 3,300 people, we really have a lot going for us.”
The city is the proud home of American Legion Baseball External Site, one of the most successful and tradition-rich amateur athletic leagues in the country. It’s also home to the Milbank Grist Mill External Site, a landmark that volunteers renovated in 2009, preserving it for future generations. These nods to the past are only made more special by improvements, big and small, for current and prospective residents.
Tucked in the northeast corner of the state, Milbank always has something in the works, whether it’s paving new bike paths or building new pickleball courts. It’s fitting that Milbank won the 2021 Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Community Award. Here are the projects that led to their success.
Safety first for bikers and pedestrians
Safety was a major initiative for the community in 2021, particularly for children walking or biking to and from school. The city took on several traffic-calming measures near the school, added sidewalks, redirected traffic, removed a left-turn lane, and installed a bike lane and bike racks.
Two miles of the Flynn Nature walking trail were also upgraded and cleared to improve walkability and bike safety. This required a controlled burn to remove unwanted weeds and overgrowth. “It’s just a safer space for bikers, walkers and runners,” says Preller.
Downtown, traffic bump-outs were installed to slow traffic, and streetlights were replaced or added to enhance safety for pedestrians. More improvements for streets in Milbank are in the works for 2022.
Easier access to healthy food
Community gardens are a hot commodity in Milbank, as more residents are requesting plots to grow their own produce. In 2021, the city decided to expand the gardens. The gardens had previously been moved to a larger, fenced-in location a couple years prior. The city also added a new storage shed so gardeners could easily store tools and equipment. Milbank has even more plans to add additional garden plots and increase the fenced area this spring.
The Milbank farmer’s market is also popular and filled with vendors every Tuesday evening during the summer. In 2021, more activities were added for children, including sidewalk chalk painting, crafts and musical entertainment. The local newspapers got involved with contests and healthy recipe ideas, which are published for all residents to enjoy.
“Overall, the amount of generous people in this town is amazing, and it’s great to see more healthy food available for everyone,” says Preller. “More and more people are leaving fresh produce at the Food Bank for anyone to take. There is no income requirement or need for an appointment.”
New equipment and programming to get people moving
In 2020, a new elementary school opened in Milbank, providing 350 students a new place to grow and learn. It wasn’t without controversy, as it was built on the land used for American Legion Baseball. However, the old school was beyond repair, and it made sense to connect the new elementary to the middle and high school. The school's playground project was far less controversial. “The community was behind it 100 percent,” according to Preller. “Now the kids have a much needed new space for activity and play.”
What’s more, in 2021, the city of Milbank took ownership of the Unity Health and Fitness Center. “This was a game changer,” says Preller. “The facility is 25 years old and has so much to offer, but was ready for a change.”
The change in ownership brought new policies, programs and offerings. For example, Milbank students now have access to the facility for basketball games, swim meets, racquetball courts, dance lessons, indoor walking and more. “Because it’s run by the city, there is more stability and more programming," says Preller. "Now it’s a place for all ages to gather, for just about everything.”
A new pickleball court was also built behind the community center in the spring of 2021, along with fencing and signage to complete the project. “This added a new activity for city residents,” says Preller. “It’s been really popular.”
What’s next for Milbank?
“We want to make it desirable for people who want to move back to Milbank,” says Preller. “This means improving walking and biking trails, and making safety a priority. Our current focus is connecting the parks, adding more bike racks, and we’re working on a walkability grant. We are also in need of better signage throughout the town, especially for visitors."
What advice does Preller have for communities who are considering participating in Healthy Hometown? “Get people involved. Form committees and get more people to the table, so you have more voices. If it’s a small group of people making decisions, you will run into problems. You really need greater community involvement, so that more people have a voice and are involved in the progress.”
“People are excited about the Healthy Hometown award and the investments being made into the Milbank community,” says Preller. “It gives us a sense of pride in our accomplishments. We are a small town, and a close-knit community. We have a big heart. It just feels good to be recognized.”
Learn more about Healthy Hometown
The Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Community Award is an annual award that celebrates the successes of communities in Iowa and South Dakota that are working to make their hometowns healthier, more active places to live. If you want to follow in Milbank’s footsteps and make positive changes to your community, check out Healthy Hometown online Opens New Window or email HealthyHometown@Wellmark.com Send Email for more information.