Clear Strategy Needed To See Rural Minnesota Grow

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

At its meeting last week, Swift County’s commissioners were a couple question every leader in rural America is being asked: What are the most critical strategic challenges the county faces?

Dawn Hegland, executive director of the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, posed the question to our five county commissioners. The RDC serves local units of government in Swift, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle, and Big Stone counties by assisting them with planning and economic development.

“What the RDC board is asking is, what are a couple of strategic issues in the region we can help with?” Hegland requested of commissioners. She told them the RDC was willing to allocate staff time to the priorities they identified.

“What are one or two things that are keeping you up at night?” Hegland asked. “As you think about the needs of the county or the needs in your jurisdiction that you represent, I would love to hear from you.”

Commissioner Eric Rudningen, District 5-Kerkhoven, pointed to the struggling farm economy, hit by poor commodity prices, the Trump Administration’s tariffs, and a terrible planting season. With farmland representing nearly 75 percent of the tax capacity of Swift County, the struggles farmers are facing is foremost in the minds of commissioners as they consider tax levies. “As it gets to budget time, we are well aware of where the dollars come from to run the county. It is a difficult spot to be in,” he said.

As the local governments look at the challenges they face the problem isn’t identifying them, it is coming up with solutions. “The number one problem in our society is that we spend 99 percent of our time talking about what the problem is and 1 percent of the time trying to find a solution,” he said.

We would disagree with Rudningen’s summation a bit. Local leaders tend to spend 99 percent of their time talking about the problems and possible solutions, and 1 percent of the time addressing them with the solutions that have been explored. Too often there is a lack of will, focus, or support for doing what is needed to effect meaningful change even when the need is obvious and the strategy for addressing the need sound.

Rudningen makes a good point stating that governments are too often reactionary rather than proactive or visionary in addressing challenges.

 “In the 1950s, we built this great big interstate highway system that we are all benefiting from now and there wasn’t the need for the interstate highway system in the 1950s that there is right now,” he said. “But someone was smart enough to put it together. So, how do we transition and be a more visionary governmental structure to provide for the safety and well being of the citizenry, rather than a reactionary structure?”

That is a good question to reflect on for county board members. It gets back to having the will, focus, and support for taking action.

For Commission Chair Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, one of the decisive challenges we face is our changing population. We can’t just acknowledge that our communities are becoming more diverse, we have to embrace that diversity. “We have to embrace it ‘cause that is the next generation,” he said. He’s right.

Look at the makeup of children in our rural schools today, they are less white than they were when many of us were kids. When we see those kids laughing, playing, and studying together, we can’t help but feel that with diversity Swift County has a bright future. Yet there is resistance.

Hendrickx mentioned that at a strategic planning session of the RDC there were “different opinions” on diversity being key to the area’s future. We got the distinct impression his wording was diplomatic in reflecting those different views.

Our grandfather didn’t speak English until he was five. Our father spoke little Norwegian. We talked with a person of Middle Eastern heritage in Chicago in early July and asked him if his children were bilingual. He replied they weren’t. They grew up speaking English. All three daughters are now either college graduates or in college. They are the future of America.

Commissioner Pete Peterson, District 3 south Benson, and Torning Township, agreed the farm economy was the single biggest challenge. “It is in the basement; let’s face it folks,” Peterson said. Raising taxes to cover the increasing costs of government is difficult for county government in such times. “It really comes down to the money for me. It has got to be our economy; that is the main issue,” Peterson said. It’s the obvious answer, but overbroad for the RDC to act on.

Commissioners Joe Fox, District 4-Hegbert Township, and Ed Pederson, District 2-north Benson and Benson Township, didn’t offer any comments. We find that troubling. Local leaders must be ready to clearly articulate their vision for county growth and how to meet the challenges we face.

In reporting on local governments, we see two different approaches to the challenges that face rural Minnesota, Swift County, and Benson. One approach comes from a perspective of what it takes to keep local government working. This is the short-sighted approach.

Yes, we need the underlying infrastructure of good roads, adequate law enforcement, and working sewer and water systems, but without addressing the challenges that lead to a declining population that infrastructure will be paid for by a steadily declining number of citizens, farmers and businesses.

If we don’t address the issues of what draws young families to rural Minnesota and keeps them here, what we are doing about our housing needs, if our schools attractive and respected, do we have a good health care system, and what types of economic development projects we are willing to back, we are simply managing decline rather than employing a strategy against it.

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