Years before a television network laid claim to the title "Survivor," Margaret Vegge already was one.
Purveyor of penny candy and bouffant hairnets since 1948, the 92-year-old owner of LaVerne's Renfro Variety Store appreciates her unique status. "Nobody keeps on working this long."
But on Main Street in Luverne, survivors are getting harder to find.
Three stores on Margaret's block -- a florist, a women's clothing store and a gift shop -- have called it quits since August.
"I am lonely already, for these stores," says Margaret.
In Margaret's corner of Minnesota, empty storefronts are often blamed on the interstate version of the bully next door - Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
"Gas prices don't seem to make much difference," says Margaret, "because I think they still love to get to a bigger town to shop."
The mismatch has existed for years. Rock County, Minnesota, population 10,000, competing for business with the Sioux Falls metro area that's nearly 25 times larger.
"I do feel bad, for them," says Shawn Mann, at work a few miles past the Minnesota state line in Brandon, South Dakota. Shawn still lives in Luverne. She used to work there too, until Luverne Truck Equipment moved to Brandon from the town that gave the company its name.
"I remember going to the post office and feeling uncomfortable," says Shawn, "because people were talking about it and they were upset."
Brandon, South Dakota has filled two industrial parks in the two decades since Luverne Truck Equipment became its first big score. Today, Brandon is bustling with enough people to fill 100 new homes a year.
"(In) 1986 we were about 2,800," says city administrator Dennis Olson when asked about Brandon's expanding population. Brandon's population today? "Just a little over 8,000."
No corporate tax, no income tax, low worker's compensation rates all are part of the South Dakota's pitch. "You can save over a million dollars per year," bark the radio ads aimed at business owners in the Twin Cities.
The voice behind the ads belongs to Dan Scott, the recently retired president of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, who was actually born in Minnesota.
So does he feel bad trying to steal the state's businesses? "No, I feel bad that I haven't stolen more," he laughs.
A mile inside Minnesota's border, in a 1920's gas station, Trudy Deutsch isn't buying the pitch.
"Yes, we pay income tax, but you pay income tax when you make money," counters Deutsch, the owner of Manley Tire in Manley.
But is she actually making money? The half-dozen expansions on her little gas station, one on top of the other, do the talking for Trudy. With more than half of her customers coming from South Dakota, in her busy season Trudy sells 300 tires a day.
Is it hard to do business in Minnesota? "No I don't think so," says Trudy. "It certainly hasn't been for us."
A few miles away Minnesota's Hills-Beaver Creek school district is winning its own cross-border competion. Fourteen students from the larger Brandon Valley school district in South Dakota are now crossing the state line to attend classes at Hills-Beaver Creek, more students than go the other way.
"It's a small school option," says Dave Deragish, superintedent at Hills-Beaver Creek. "When they come to school here, we know who they are. We know their names."
It was enough to convince Sophomore Mitchell Elbers' mother that a change would be good. "Some of my freinds got in trouble with drugs," says the former Brandon Valley student. "She just didn't want me to get in trouble with all that stuff so she wanted me to come here."
And Rock County has another mark for its scorecard - more than 100 new jobs in a formerly abandoned office building a few blocks off Main Street. The jobs were attracted from out of state with help from JOBZ, a Minnesota tax incentive program.
Even more significant is the out of state company, Total Card Incorporated, is based in South Dakota. They are a credit card service company.
"It was a big deal to be able to bring somebody back, to Minnesota, to Rock County," says County Executive Kyle Oldre. "It was critical to break that cycle."
Rock County is growing another business South Dakota can't get its hands on - the wind.
"It blows all the time," says farmer Richard Bakken as he braces himself against a strong northern breeze.
Bakken is part owner of one of eleven wind turbines already erected in Rock County, enough to provide power for more than 4,000 homes.
A county away the massive wind farms of Minnesota's Buffalo Ridge show the potential for wind energy development.
New transmission lines going up along I-90 should help. When complete, they will help ferry wind power to the population centers of Sioux Falls and the Twin Cities.
But despite the positive steps, those store closings back in Luverne provide a daily reminder of the challenge this small town faces in the shadows of the big boxes and malls in Sioux Falls.
"It's a blessing and curse," acknowledges Jane Wildung, executive director of the Luverne Chamber of Commerce.
Wildung knows the curse part first hand. Her third generation women's clothing store now sits empty across the street from the chamber offices. She resolves to turn things around. "There are 250,000 people there that buy things. We just have to get them to come this way."
If those South Dakotans do come calling they can count on Margaret Vegge's old-fashioned hospitality.
Already 40 years past her retirement age, Rock County's survivor isn't about to give up now on her corner of Minnesota.
"We can't let the town go down," says the determined 92-year-old. "I've got to keep going."
(Copyright 2008 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)