Patti Ballan has always excelled at solving problems. This instinct is inherent in everything she does, starting with her father’s furniture business, which she ran for almost 25 years after his retirement. She found a certain joy and intimacy in helping others find their taste. But when it came time for her retirement, there was a dilemma: she didn’t want to leave another empty building in her small town. So Patti did something unprecedented: along with her husband, they transformed her furniture store into a coworking space in their home of International Falls, a city of just under 6,000. Even though businesses like this aren’t typical in rural areas, Patti saw an opportunity to provide something new for her community. “We have such poor internet service in outlying areas and tourist areas, so we brought in high-speed internet that’s reliable and fast,” she says. They called it iSpace and opened in December of 2019. Just a few months later, she, along with much of the world, would find her plans changed by the Coronavirus. This did not slow her down: starting in March, Patti began providing free space to students who couldn’t access their online classrooms from home.
“All of a sudden, our building was full of rotating students,” she says.
Patti has a gift for revival. Two decades ago, she helped lead an effort to save two historic school buildings from demolition.
“We’d pass the hat for dollars to keep the heat on in the building,” she says. “It wasn’t an easy task, but we were a very determined group, and we succeeded.”
They won their effort with the city, and the schools have become the Backus Community Center, on whose board Patti still serves. It’s one of the largest venues in the Falls and home to a number of enrichment programs. And because watching her community blossom isn’t quite enough, Patti also participates in a program that enhances city beautification — making International Falls more vibrant for everyone.
Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Awards recognize the significant impact four honorees have had on the state of Minnesota and its communities.
Meet the other heroes: