What Will Bring People To The Benson Area?

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Swift County, District 777 Public Schools, and City of Benson residents are getting practiced at giving their input to elected officials. It is a refreshing change. Too often citizens sit on the sidelines and complain.

But over the past year, citizens have given their input in shaping a $26.3 million school levy for construction of a new performing arts center, the addition of classrooms onto the Northside Elementary School for early childhood classes and day care, for new gymnasium space, for new classrooms at the senior high dedicated to 21st Century learning approaches, a new cafeteria and kitchen at the Northside, and for a new band room.

Now, through the new Swift County Community Perspectives Committee, citizens will be giving their thoughts to county commissioners on a potential new justice center or coming up with another approach to meeting county building needs.

If we do have a complaint about citizen involvement, it is that it too often comes late in the game and after the well-publicized actions of the local unit of government have moved it gradually forward toward a decision. We say this because there is another process underway that could use some citizen input.

In about 10 days, a group of community leaders will sit down for an intensive three-day strategy session addressing the future needs of the Benson area.

City, school, county, hospital, main street, and industry representatives will meet to develop a template for how we meet the challenges of declining population, a shortage of workers for our public and private employers, and a shortage of quality affordable housing. Community leaders will look at how we meet the educational needs of our children. The group will discuss how we attract new people to the community and what young people are looking for in the place they live and work.

How do you think these needs are going to be met? What are the most critical challenges to address? If you have answers to these questions, let your elected officials know. You can also write a letter to the editor stating your ideas. This is your chance to be proactive; a chance to shape the conversation early in the process.

Benson has already taken significant steps toward setting the stage for the meeting that will take place May 2,3 and 4.

Last November, it brought economic development specialist and “community therapist” Doug Griffiths to the city for two days. Griffiths is the author of “13 Ways to Kill Your Community,” and founder of 13 Ways, a business focused on helping communities find their particular talents and assets to launch and sustain their economic development effort. He brought with him Heather Thomson, the executive director of the Alberta School of Business – School of Retail.  She is also the brand and business manager for 13 Ways.

In the two days he was here, he met with students, senior citizens, business people, young adults, and local government leaders. Griffiths sought an answer to a two-part question from those he met with: What is the most important thing to the future of your community and what assets do you have that will help you ensure your future is bright?

 Getting young families to move to Benson was the first answer and quality, affordable and readily available daycare the second.

To initiate economic development strategies and keep the ball rolling takes constant attention. To ensure that it didn’t let things slide, the Benson council signed a one-year contract for economic development and planning services from the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission (RDC.) That brought RDC Economic Development Specialist Laura Ostlie on board. She has been attending Benson Economic Development Authority (EDA) meetings, council meetings, strategic planning sessions, and represented the city at an international biomass conference.

Based in Appleton, the RDC provides services to local units of government from townships to cities to counties in Swift, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, and Yellow Medicine.

In January, the council conducted a two-day strategic planning session with Marcie Douglas of Missouri River Energy Services as a facilitator. She is a former city manager who now works with Missouri River communities helping them with strategic planning. Missouri River is a large multi-state consortium of cities that have gone together to produce electric energy for their municipalities. Benson is a member of Missouri River.

For decades the focus of economic development has been providing infrastructure and buildings to attract new businesses and help local ones expand. Those efforts are still essential, but they are of little impact if businesses turn away from rural Minnesota because it doesn’t have the employees to fill the jobs created.

 “People creation” is the single most pressing challenge for community leaders today. We need to find the answers to what draws people to a rural community. When we do, we must commit the funds and people to meet the needs of a new generation of workers.

We’ve taken some significant steps in that direction in the past year.

The approval of the bond levy for the school sends an important message to those considering living here that we are supportive of improving our educational facilities.

Our school, and community, standing behind providing daycare for children starting at 6 weeks of age says we are committed to young families.

Benson continues to work with Brightmark Energy on bringing a new industry to the community. Its initial investment is estimated at around $50 million with the potential for an additional $150 million if it expands to a second phase. It would employ 20 to 30 people during its first phase. It will help replace some of the jobs, and tax base lost when Benson Power shut down.

In early May, community leaders will be looking to capitalize on the efforts of the past year. You can have input by speaking up now.

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