Fundamental Changes In Economic Development

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News


Who would have imagined 20 years ago, maybe even only three, that quality, affordable and readily available daycare would be the key to economic development and a city’s growth?

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution economic development has been about bricks and mortar. It has been about the “build it and they (workers) will come” philosophy.

It is a philosophy so ingrained in our thinking and approach to economic development that it takes a profound reordering of traditional principles enshrined in a community’s playbook for creating jobs and drawing workers to fill them.

Many who read the story on this week’s front page about Doug Griffiths’ two days in Benson will dismiss, perhaps even laugh off, the conclusion reached through a consensus of different community groups he met with during his time here. You know who isn’t laughing? Who isn’t dismissing it? The young families we are trying to draw to the Benson area.

Traveling with Griffiths to lend a perspective he knew he couldn’t get on his own about the community was the executive director of the Alberta School of Business – School of Retail. Heather Thomson is also the brand and business manager for Griffiths’ company 13 Ways. Probably the most important role she brought last week was that of a young mother.

During a break in a discussion with Millennials, Thomson sat talking with three young mothers like herself about the challenges they face, including finding daycare. They told her just how important Benson Public Schools’ daycare program was to their ability to stay employed and continue living here. But it is more than just having daycare available; it is about the peace of mind that comes with knowing that there is a reliable, professional, and nurturing environment for your children.

Several years ago, Benson Public Schools was hearing from parents and employers that they needed more daycare than was available in the community. They also needed day care that provided the hours of service that corresponded with employees’ work hours.

Taking the lead, the school board and administration worked to establish a daycare program that now serves children six weeks old through sixth grade. Its hours extend from 5:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night. It operates in the summer. Children are cared for in an educational environment that nurtures learning.  Parents and educators know that the ages zero to 18 months are a critical time for child development and future success.

In most communities, parents who want to have children have to first search for a daycare facility that will take infants. Sometimes that search starts months in advance and often means getting on a waiting list. Benson’s daycare program has no waiting list.

In its effort to expand daycare services, the school received financial backing from Benson, Swift County, Swift County-Benson Health Services, and local businesses.

Griffiths and Thomson were told that parents would drive 40 miles or more one way for daycare. Daycare decisions can be deciding factors in where they live, where they work and where they enroll older children in the family.

Through providing daycare to the community the school was meeting a sorely needed service. However, no one fully appreciated just what a fundamental role it could play in Benson’s future.

When U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar visited Benson High School earlier this month, the innovative daycare program the school and community had established astounded her. She hasn’t seen anything like it anywhere else.

Griffiths and Thomson were impressed with it as well. They recognized, and helped community leaders recognize, that our daycare service could become a featured selling point for the community.

Economic development today isn’t so much about job creation as it is about people creation. During the height of unemployment in America that followed the great recession between 2007-2009, 10.2 percent of the nation’s workforce sat idle. Even then, with jobs readily available and local companies making significant efforts to draw workers to the community, we couldn’t fill the jobs vacant here.

People are far less willing and motivated to move in search of jobs today. They aren’t likely to move from the South, the East Coast, the Rust Belt states, or even the Twin Cities, to take a job in Benson, Minnesota.

If people aren’t willing to move for employment when they don’t have a job, what is going to get them to move when unemployment is at a near record low? And, why Benson of all the towns in America?

Answering those question means looking at economic development from a new perspective. Who are we trying to attract to our community? What are the services, amenities, and feel of the community they are willing to call home? What makes life rewarding and fulfilling for the people we seek? Answer those questions, then focus on addressing them and your town will be on its way to a much better chance of growing.

Through the meetings with Griffiths and Thomson, community leaders also established two other top goals: First, continue to develop the existing relationship between local industry and the high school where students learn trades and professions. Second, work to beautify Benson. Some scoff at this last goal, but then they don’t understand what Millennials and the new iGeneration are looking for in a community – more on that next week.

Now that we have identified the assets that will help our community grow, we must develop a culture in the community that nurtures and highlights those assets. With that culture has to come a strategic plan and the people who will lead the effort. So often communities go through all the motions, but fail to follow through. We have faith that the community leadership is in place that will keep the momentum gained last week accelerating.

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