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SIOUX FALLS, S.D.
Thomas Unterseher is on a mission to make South Dakota's small towns more attractive, and he's starting in the place he knows best: his hometown of Mobridge.
Like many small towns in the state, Mobridge has been on the decline for decades and is struggling to maintain its population. Unterseher, a former city councilman, said South Dakota's small towns need to improve their design and city planning if they want to attract and keep people and businesses. In Mobridge, that includes revamping the boxy steel buildings lining the streets and developing 30 acres of lakefront property.
But since there's little money in the city budget to pay architects or designers to develop a long-term plan to pitch to residents, Unterseher is turning to an untapped resource: architecture students.
He contacted officials at South Dakota State University's new architecture program to see if they wanted to offer a course that used Mobridge as a teaching tool.
Officials at the school were interested, and about 50 first- and second-year architecture students traveled from Brookings to Mobridge recently to measure, photograph and examine individual blocks within the town as they begin the process of creating a new vision for the community.
The hope is that Mobridge's 3,500 residents can see the possibilities for their town -- at no cost -- while students gain valuable planning experience in a real-world setting.
"Mobridge really can't afford to engage an architecture firm. There really aren't a lot of architects in the area anyway. So for the community with limited funds, this was probably the path of least resistance to get some of the work done," said Unterseher, who, as co-founder of One World Direct, a call center and order fulfillment services company, splits his time between Mobridge and Pasadena, Calif.
During the three-day trip, the students studied things like traffic patterns and the location and placement of the buildings so they could create their own three-dimensional model of the block when they returned to Brookings. Future classes will then build upon that work and present their ideas to the residents of Mobridge, which got its name because it was the location of the only railroad bridge across the Missouri River for many years.
In addition to saving money, officials hope the students may see something about the town that a local living in Mobridge their entire life can't, said Jamie Dietterle, a Mobridge city councilman.
This isn't the first time Unterseher and Mobridge have worked with students. In October 2010, a group from the University of Utah's Department of City and Metropolitan Planning took part in a similar exercise that identified possibilities for ways to develop 30 acres of land lying between downtown Mobridge and the shoreline of Lake Oahe.
The students gathered input from residents through forums and surveys before creating a brochure of the possible venues, pathways and landscapes that could be developed along the property.
Pleased with the work and ideas from the Utah students, officials decided to try to work with other universities. When Unterseher heard SDSU had started the state's first accredited architecture program in the fall of 2010, he thought it would be a perfect fit and contacted department officials, who were enthusiastic about forging a partnership.
"Many (of the students) are from these small towns in South Dakota not too different from Mobridge," said Charles MacBride, an assistant professor of architecture at SDSU.
MacBride said he hopes the students will learn to see the potential in the state's small towns and think critically about how to help them survive.
Several projects in other South Dakota towns are also being developed, MacBride said. A project in Baltic involves refurbishing small wood buildings into an artists' retreat, while students will be redesigning school athletic fields in DeSmet.
MacBride said the Mobridge project has been an eye-opening experience for many of the students, including Mark Olson, who has been interested in architecture for many years but had no real experience in the field.
Olson, 18, said the fieldwork was different than he anticipated -- there was a lot more detail and repetition involved -- but he is excited to see what the students come up with for Mobridge.
"It's a little overwhelming right now," he said. "It will be very intriguing to see how the different years come up with ideas."
Follow Kristi Eaton at http://twitter.com/kristieaton.