Lee Schafer
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The setup at the Dakota Roots kiosk at the Mall of America early this week was a bit like queuing up to see a department store Santa Claus, though in this case it was to spend a few minutes with South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

Daugaard stood just a few feet from the kiosk, as TV cameramen from Sioux Falls stations hovered nearby, greeting people who were rounded up by his staff. One by one, the governor made a personal pitch for each visitor to live and work in South Dakota.

The kiosk is a most unusual economic development initiative in what is certainly a most unusual location — the ground floor of the North Garden in Bloomington’s Mall of America.

Daugaard was set up to meet visitors between the front doors of Hot Topic, which sells pop-culture oriented clothing and accessories for young people, and Typo, a gift and stationery store for those way too cool for a Hallmark shop.

Dakota Roots first launched under Daugaard’s predecessor to address the state’s vexing problem. South Dakota needs more workers to take full advantage of its low unemployment rate (4.3 percent) and 10,000 unfilled jobs statewide, according to the governor’s staff.

As the name suggests, Dakota Roots is designed to lure people who perhaps grew up in South Dakota and had moved away, or went to college there, or had parents or grandparents from the state.

Daugaard was there to pitch and persuade, not talk to media. And he reached out to a variety of intriguing prospects — a recent graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law, a retail shop owner from central Minnesota, among others.

“This is one we really want to get back,” said Pam Roberts, cabinet secretary of the Department of Labor and Regulation, walking up to greet a young woman standing next to me. Before Roberts could introduce her, the woman stuck out her hand and said, “Hi, I’m Nicole Stengle.”

Stengle does sound like a perfect Dakota Roots target. She grew up in Pierre, and has a degree in industrial engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. Her work experience includes positions at the 3M Co., and she has worked for the last 2 ½ years at Target.

Stengle had just a moment to talk before the governor was ready to see her, but I got a sense of her dilemma. She likes her career opportunities in places like the Twin Cities, with large, stable employers like Target. And she very much likes her home state.

Maybe Sioux Falls one day will have a good opportunity, she said, as “Sioux Falls is where most of my good friends have migrated to.”

Shelly Keyes of Monticello said she wasn’t thinking about an opportunity in Sioux Falls, but she is looking ahead to when her husband may wish to retire and relocate to the family farm near Clark, S.D. She pulled a Dakota Roots mailing from her bag as she was waiting to see Daugaard.

When the governor took office in 2011, he made sure the Dakota Roots program ramped up mailings and other marketing efforts, with a fresh appropriation of $200,000. Initiatives included a “letter from home” campaign in June 2012 to 104,000 out-of-state alums of South Dakota colleges and universities.

Since its inception in fall 2006, more than 17,500 people have registered with DakotaRoots.com to be matched with potential employers. Nearly 2,900 have found a job in South Dakota and more than 500 of them were from Minnesota.

With a $200,000 campaign and the cost of flying the state’s plane to Minnesota to have the governor chat up mall visitors, Dakota Roots would not appear to be paragon of government efficiency, but I decided not to bring that up with a governor who appeared to be so thoroughly enjoying his hour at a shopping mall.

Daugaard, who had been a fundraising executive with Children’s Home Society of South Dakota before entering politics, is a very polished and personable pitchman. The looks on faces from people who had just met him invariably had a smile.

“You can have a great sales technique and have great engagement, but if you don’t have a good product that’s hard,” he said, when it came my turn for a conversation. “South Dakota is a great product.”

Daugaard explained that he wasn’t just in Minnesota to pitch a handful of mall visitors on the idea of moving to South Dakota, as his trip to Bloomington was sandwiched between meetings with companies he hoped would expand in his state. As he put it, “just as individuals are looking for greener grass, so to are businesses.”

Does a pending $2 billion or so tax increase in the works at the Minnesota Legislature make it a particularly good week to be pitching Minnesota business owners on the idea of expanding in South Dakota?

“It’s doesn’t hurt,” he said.

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302