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Small towns with aging populations throughout rural Minnesota are searching for ways to bring new blood and new ideas to their communities.

In Granite Falls, city leaders are betting that art is one way to make that happen. Working with a visionary young artist and community organizer, the city is turning a vacant downtown building into a creative hub — a place not only for art, but for the entire community to gather and inspire new thinking about all aspects of the town’s life.

The YES House is the brainchild of Ashley Hanson, a Minnesota native who recently was awarded one of 20 Obama Fellowships from among more than 20,000 applicants in 191 countries. Hanson chose to work with Granite Falls, a city of about 2,700 residents 125 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, because in 2011 it hosted the first theater production of her career.

“It was the first place that said ‘yes’ to me, so I wanted to say ‘yes’ to it,” Hanson said. “And they continue to say ‘yes’ to every creative idea that I and every artist in the area have brought forth. So it felt like the right place to start a hub.”

Hanson focuses her efforts on building community in rural towns. Last year, she drove a school bus across the country, visiting artists in cities with fewer than 10,000 people. She traveled more than 6,000 miles, stopping in 24 towns in 20 states, with the goal of better understanding the rural-urban divide in America.

Cathy Anderson, director of the Granite Falls Economic Development Authority, said Hanson’s efforts have built on work already done by the city’s Arts Council.

“They really are waking up our sleepy little town with art,” Anderson said. “I was sort of banking on health care [for economic development], and then the arts kind of took me by surprise.

“But as an economic development person, I’ll take growth wherever it comes from.”

The Minnesota River Valley is gaining a reputation as an arts-rich area, thanks to efforts such as the Meander Art Crawl, an annual self-guided tour featuring the work of more than 40 local artists in the upper valley.

YES House occupies a previously vacant building on Prentice Street, the town’s main drag, that housed a variety of retail stores in its lifetime. The building was donated to Hanson’s group by its owner, local resident Verona Dalin.

Renovation is underway, funded by a combination of city money, grants and community fundraising — as well as a lot of volunteer effort.

Hanson said the goal is to have basic repairs done and a design for renovation by November, then launch a capital campaign for the build-out.

When completed, YES House will be home to an official city artist-in-residence. According to Hanson, Granite Falls will be the first city of its size in the nation to have an artist-in-residence.

“The closest one we could find was a city of 100,000,” she said.

Mayor Dave Smiglewski said the City Council has strongly supported the effort.

“We’ve got an underutilized building that’s going to be repurposed and turned into something that’s going to be an interesting place to launch new ideas,” he said. “Should be fun to see how it goes.”

John Reinan • 612-673-7402