FREEMAN — Josh Hofer knows about marketing — after all, he founded a festival based on meat cubes that has drawn thousands of visitors.
The Freeman native helped launch the South Dakota Chislic Festival (SDCF) in his hometown. The one-day event featured chislic — skewered meat, usually lamb or mutton, cooked over a grill — introduced by the German-Russian settlers of this town of 1,300 residents.
Hofer and other organizers hoped for 1,000 visitors — but were greeted by an estimated 8,000. “We were overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up. We never expected that type of response,” he said.
Now, he wants to repeat that type of community success — and the lessons learned in the process — across South Dakota.
Hofer is the newest member of SDSU Extension’s Community Vitality Team. The field specialists assist with business, leadership and community development needs across the state.
The pandemic has forced rapid work on some long-term projects, Hofer said. COVID has created much greater demand for reliable broadband to handle telemedicine and for both employees and students who are working from home.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “These things were going to happen whether we had the pandemic or not, but the coronavirus has advanced everything.”
In his new position, Hofer brings experience in grant writing, city development, and business and organization management to his new role.
Hofer earned an undergraduate degree in music and theatre from Goshen College in Indiana and earned an advanced degree in arts administration from Indiana University.
“I grew up with a passion for music and the arts, which was pretty much my focus until I was 19 or 20 years old,” he said. “But I also found myself continuously being drawn to community development and education.”
He returned to southeast South Dakota, working as a grants specialist for the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls. Most recently, he served as director of development and marketing for the city of Freeman.
Hofer brings many of those insights to the Community Vitality Team. The four-person team works with improving existing resources along with tackling issues ranging from expanded broadband opportunities to tourism and cultural activities attracting visitors.
As part of his work, he is exploring “placemaking” opportunities which improve the local quality of life. In turn, the changes help attract and keep young families and professionals in South Dakota. “The idea is to create a quality place where people want to live, work, play and learn,” he said.
Hofer currently works as the only team member in eastern South Dakota, based out of the SDSU Extension regional office in Mitchell. The team works with three target areas: creating vibrant places, strengthening business and energizing leaders. Those areas can include small businesses, local agriculture and agri-tourism.
The Community Vitality Team is working on leadership development in rural areas, Hofer said. The effort includes introducing and encouraging young people to step forward in their communities. As part of the mission, the team is developing a statewide network.
The Community Vitality Team is launching an online initiative which should be finalized in about six months, he said. The project seeks to improve broadband and other technology.
“There are opportunities for remote work in our communities,” he said. “More people get to choose where they want to work, whether it’s as a contractor or as an employee. It means more quality-of-life issues for those individuals.”
Communities need to show initiative, persistence and patience, Hofer said. He offered his own experiences as examples of some ideas working better or faster than others.
The South Dakota Chislic Festival was formed as a non-profit organization in Freeman. The first year brought an estimated economic impact of $110,000 locally and drew national publicity, he said. The next year, with its revamped venue and upgraded food offerings and entertainment, the festival drew even more people.
Hofer has worked with other ventures that didn’t meet with as much success, such as a farm-to-plate initiative and a business featuring chislic and other German food. He has learned valuable lessons from all of those ventures.
“Communities who make themselves readily available for opportunities and creating vibrant places are the ones who will compete,” he said. “The tools are there, but there are also challenges in areas like housing and technical access.”
Hofer sees a renewed interest in rural areas, which may be spurred by the pandemic.
“It makes this job fun for me. I’m very excited to have this opportunity,” he said. “We’re launching new things, and we’ll see where it ends up.”
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.