A Pivotal Point In Benson’s Future

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

There are times when elected officials can govern on cruise control. The administrative staff has things well in hand, and there are no significant challenges on the horizon. This isn’t one of those times. This is a time that demands engagement as well as open minds and innovative thinking. It is a time for breaking out of comfort zones. It is time for risks.

Municipal governments have as their core function providing essential services to citizens: law enforcement to protect citizens and their property; fire protection; an ambulance or rescue squad; good water; smooth roads; reliable electrical service; and a sanitary sewer system.

Beyond ensuring these services run smoothly elected officials like to be seen as frugal with the public’s money.

Pressing challenges ahead

Benson has significant opportunity and significant challenges ahead.

The challenges include replacing the 45 jobs lost when Benson Power was closed. The plant also supported another 100 jobs or more in the area. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimated it generated between $8 to $10 million in annual economic activity.

Xcel Energy, which purchased the plant last year, plans to tear down most of the buildings on the site to four feet below grade starting this spring. When it’s gone, it means the eventual loss of nearly $420,000 in real estate taxes paid to the City of Benson – one-quarter of its levy.

Benson, Swift County, and western Minnesota face the challenge of a declining population. There are fewer students in our schools,  fewer shoppers in our main street stores, and fewer workers available for industries. We also have an aging workforce that if not replaced will threaten our ability to keep manufacturers here.

We need affordable workforce housing, but we also need housing that is attractive to people earning higher incomes.

Opportunities if we reach for them

Benson is uniquely positioned to address these challenges if it approaches them with an aggressive, strategic, and innovative effort.

Though we’ve lost Benson Power, the City of Benson is being compensated $20 million over four years from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund. The first $4 million payment was made last summer with $6.5 million due at the end of June. Another $6.5 million comes in 2020 and the final $4 million is due in 2021.

But that $20 million isn’t going to buy us out of our challenges, rather it will support the efforts we develop.

Our innovative school-based child care program that takes in infants at six weeks old and provides services to children up to sixth grade sets the Benson community apart from many others in Minnesota. It gives us a decided advantage in drawing people to the community. We need to continue to support it and promote it.

We are making significant strides in improving our schools with the $26.3 million building levy passed last August.

We don’t have lakes, but our community has invested heavily in outdoor recreation with its pool, Ambush Park, hiking trails, civic center, golf course and the Northside Recreation Area.

We’ve laid the foundation; now what will we build on top of it?

A commitment to economic development

Benson signed a one-year contract for economic development and planning services from the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission (RDC) in January and committed up to $99,840 to pay for it. At no cost, it has engaged Missouri River Energy Services to facilitate its economic strategic plan development.

For three days in April, the City of Benson will host a retreat with representatives of the county, school district, the business community, Swift County-Benson Health Services, and economic development specialists. Its goal is to develop a more detailed strategic plan for Benson’s future.

“A community does not become stronger and better only by creating jobs,” Community therapist and economic development advisor Doug Griffiths says. “Strong communities find success by being communities where people want to live because of the quality of life, not just because they are business centers. Success requires balance, and we never lose sight of that.”

Economic development today is about people creation, not just bricks and mortar. What are the essentials to “people creation?”

First, you have to know the audience. Our primary target is the millennial generation, those now between the ages of 22 and 38. Do we know what Millennials value in life? If we assume they are wired the same way as the baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964), we might as well be speaking a foreign language to them. They have different aspirations and goals.

We are growing older and more conservative just when we are in desperate need of attracting young people who are more open-minded, more diverse, and more tolerant of those who aren’t like them. Can we change?
Developing a plan that addresses our challenges and needs is a waste of time unless there is a commitment to follow through. That follow-through is going to require financing a multi-year plan with someone specifically assigned to carry it out.

Are you a leader?

Does your perspective fit the reality of the challenges ahead, or are you applying yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems?

Do you have the strength to make an informed decision and defend it when the inevitable critics start harping?

Can you make the financial commitment for the community that is out of your comfort range, but a necessary investment in taking us where we need to go?

Can you pursue norm-breaking solutions needed to adapt our community to a rapidly changing world?

Time is running out for rural communities that lack the leadership willing to take risks.

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