A highlight of the year for me and my Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) colleagues and Board members is SMIF’s Annual Bus Tour. For the third year, we picked a grouping of our twenty counties to visit. We spent the day visiting clients and others who are making a difference in their community. We use this time to hear from stakeholders and listen to community leaders.

This year, we traveled to the northern part of our region, starting in Northfield (Rice County), and traveling to Le Sueur, Sibley and Nicollet Counties.

Across all these counties, we heard concerns about the lack of child care, the need for more workforce housing, infrastructure improvements and climate resiliency planning, access to health care, workforce shortage and welcoming new faces into leadership. Despite these large-scale challenges, I was impressed to meet so many people who are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to do what they can.

In Northfield, we had an evening reception at a loan client, Imminent Brewing. Imminent is one of the many new economic development opportunities brewing in Rice County, yet they are actively trying to grow their commercial and industrial tax base. They also have the good problem of a very engaged community and the competing interests that can come with that. Infrastructure is a big concern, given the increase in flooding along the Cannon River.

In New Prague, Farmhouse Market (a SMIF loan client) is providing local food access 24/7 to customers, along with a community garden. We also heard how New Prague’s Early Childhood Initiative – led by a former SMIF AmeriCorps LEAP member – is bringing new voices to the table about meeting early childhood needs in their community.

Henderson (population 900), has decided to focus on tourism as an economic driver. They host Sauerkraut Days every June and every Tuesday night bring in 2,000 people for their Classic Car Roll-in. They’re also building on some Prince energy – it turns out part of Purple Rain was filmed near Henderson.

Agriculture continues to be a big job provider, particularly in Sibley County. One big employer is Davis Family Dairies. We stopped by their milking operations in New Sweden. They have 10,000 cows (which grew by at least one more while we were there) and a solid research partnership with the University of Minnesota. They discussed the workforce shortage and the need to focus on increased automation along with an immigration policy that helps fill the workforce pipeline.

In St. Peter, we heard more in-depth from leaders on their biggest economic development concerns, particularly the shortage of child care providers. However, we heard that their business community is doing well and has largely rebounded from the recession. Both St. Peter and Northfield benefit from their liberal arts colleges.

In Faribault, Living Greens Farm (another SMIF client) is patenting technology at their aeroponics farm to grow year-round greens and herbs in what would otherwise be a vacant industrial building. It was surreal to walk between rows of fragrant basil and mint and lettuce growing vertically and in one of the most efficient processes yet developed.

Along the route, we heard from partners about their work, including Region Nine Development Commission, Compeer Financial (the new name for the merger involving AgStar), DEED, and Center for Rural Policy and Development.

For me, this bus tour highlights that while our 20-county region faces similar economic challenges – child care, housing, workforce, embracing diversity, infrastructure – there is a vibrant range of activity prevailing. It’s a long day, but energizing nonetheless.

We’ve all heard the mantra about having two ears and one mouth and the need to use them in proportion to each other. This trip is a great way to do just that. Next year we’ll be hitting the road to Dodge, Olmsted and Steele Counties.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215. 

Tim Penny, President & CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

Tim Penny is the President & CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Tim represented Minnesota’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 – 1994.