Tara Onken connecting people to opportunities

Photo by Mike Lamb EDA Director Tara Onken stands in the middle of Third Street in Onken.

Tara Onken has been making connections from one end of Lyon County to the other.

Besides her devotion to real estate, Onken has served as economic development authority director for Balaton, Tracy and Marshall. She is now on her second stint as EDA director in Balaton. Also, Onken is currently board chair of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. SWMHP is a nonprofit community development corporation serving communities throughout Southwest and South Central Minnesota.

“I try to connect people when it makes sense and it’s a lot of fun,” Onken said. “Just because you get to meet a lot of people and learn from. I’ve had so many great mentors in my life, so I always try to pay it forward in a way.”

One of those ways is teaching at GOLD College at Southwest Minnesota State University. GOLD College is a SMSU program that offers learning opportunities to adults who are not necessarily working a degree. It’s an opportunity to learn and share experiences, according to the SMSU GOLD College website.

“This is my second year being a mentor with that program and it’s phenomenal. I love it, because even though I’m the teacher — like just by having conversations and talking about certain things — I learn so much. Even though it’s conversation and it’s interactions about certain things,” she said. “Mentorship is just so important. If somebody calls and wants help, I’ll provide resources or share insight. It’s mutually beneficial.”

Onken teaches real estate and community development at GOLD College. Onken says community development is one of her favorite subjects.

“Like how towns were created. Like along the river in the old days or along the railroad, like Balaton. How they were formed and why and kind of the evolution of that over the last hundreds years,” Onken said.

She said past students were surprised how they could go online and look up their house and find the tax value, who owned it, what it was sold for.

“A lot of people in the class didn’t even know that they could do that. So it was a lot of fun we did that,” Onken said.

Her strongest ties are with Onken, her present place of residence. She grew up on farm south of Balaton and attended school in Slayton. She remembers participating in summer recreation in Balaton.

“A lot of ties to the Balaton community,” she said.

Onken went off to college at South Dakota State University.

“When I was in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to stay around here. So I knew I didn’t want to move away. I didn’t want to move to the big city or get out of here. I wanted to stay here in a rural community,” she said.

Onken earned here real estate license. Her first job out of college was with SWMHP.

“I really liked what I was doing there,” she said.

However, then the opportunities arrived in real estate and economic development. She both SWMHP and economic development work related to each other.

“I like real estate and space and place. So it’s all fits together. Right in the same umbrella even though it seems different. It’s a lot of fun,” Onken said. “I’m actually the board chair of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership now. So even though I don’t work their anymore, I see the important work they are doing . Different communities in our region specifically and they’re nationally known actually, so it’s pretty cool. They have over 2,000 housing units. There’s still a lot of work to do in Balaton and in other communities in the area in as far as taking advantage of small cities programs and different funding that comes along to enhance or increase the quality of life. Whether that’s fixing homes for people or make better living conditions or maybe it’s just improvements in the community like adding pickleball courts for active lifestyle. There’s always new and different things going on. So how we sort of evolve forward and not get left behind a little bit.”

As an economic development director, Onken enjoys connecting people with more than just information about property. She tries to connect them with program that can loan dollars that are lower interest or grant dollars. She also tries to connect people with other people.

“I think myself as a connector. I know you you, and you would work great with this person. Maybe it’s a supplier to somebody or maybe it’s just work that needs to be done. Maybe it’s a contractor. I try to connect people when it makes sense,” she said.

Besides her position as director of the Balaton Economic Development Authority in Balaton, she’s also a board member on the Balaton Community Foundation — which is affiliated with SWMHP.

“It’s really nice that everybody collaborates and there’s a lot of overlap. It’s fun to see that when people work together, come together for bettering the community,” Onken said. “In small towns you have to be problem solvers, so I’m glad that we (Balaton) have a lot of problem solvers in town that take initiative and put their thinking hats on and roll up their sleeves. Get stuff done.”

Onken believes Balaton residents are getting “stuff done.”

“One of things the city council and EDA has on top for the short-term future this year — we’re really going to work on clean up some of the cars that don’t run, that haven’t been titled. Some property cleanup, because things have just kind of slipped a little bit,” she said. “But I think further down the road, I think Balaton will continue to grow. I think people have been trending back to their hometowns. And it’s really a great place to raise a family. We have a great school system for kids to go to smaller class-sizes and great sports programs.

“I think Balaton has something special other communities don’t have. I’m biased because I live here, but I have worked with a lot of other communities — not just around here — but even farther. It’s nice to live in a a nice community that’s collaborative and that there is young people involved. You go to some of these board meetings — whether it’s the chamber or the foundation — there’s at least half of the people are 35 or younger. Which is awesome,” she said.

“I know we are not going to attract some super big industry. We don’t have the infrastructure. But if there’s people that want to start, or expand their current business — maybe it’s just an auto mechanic that works out of his garage — it’s nice where you now we can go down to Main Street and you can get your car detailed, you can get a massage. We have all that in town. It’s great. I like it. It’s so convenient.”


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