Feature Image: SMIF board, staff and partners in Spring Grove.

Every summer I look forward to Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s (SMIF) annual bus tour. For the fifth year, SMIF staff and board spent the day visiting partners who are making a difference in their community. This year we traveled to the eastern part of our 20-county region – Mower, Fillmore and Houston counties.

We started out the tour by enjoying a meal from SMIF loan client, Bella Victoria, before speaking with community leaders from Austin. A new community recreation center is in the process of being built, which will include a fitness center, youth center, child care and a community gathering space. Another exciting new program is targeted to youth – every student from Austin High Schools are eligible to have a two-year scholarship paid in full at Riverland Community College through The Hormel Foundation Austin Assurance Scholarship program. What a great way to invest back in the community.

In Harmony we toured Harmony Enterprises, a manufacturer for waste handling and recycling products. This third-generation family business in a town of 1,000 has a global impact. Their compactors and balers can be found at airports, restaurants and other locations around the world, including places like Le Louvre museum in Paris. Next door is the Harmony Kids Learning Center, a child care facility that was built to support Harmony Enterprises employees and the community as a whole. They see this as an important employee retention and hiring tool, as well as a major asset for the town.

In Spring Grove we had lunch with leaders from towns around the area. Spring Grove is one of SMIF’s Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) communities. The REV program supports the long-term development of entrepreneurial ecosystems. We were told that the town is currently dealing with a good problem – they have had so much growth in entrepreneurship that there aren’t enough physical locations to put the businesses.

While we were there, we toured RockFilter Distillery. The owner, Christian Myrah, grows the organic grain that gets turned into whiskey and bourbon. He believes that southeast Minnesota is conducive to the distilling business because the natural limestone has the same geology found in Kentucky where bourbon is a major industry.

Toward the end of the day we made a quick stop in Lanesboro (another REV community) to indulge in treats at Another Time Ice Cream before heading over to Preston. In Preston, we admired a mural that was supported by a SMIF Paint the Town Grant, before escaping the heat wave and meeting with local leaders at City Hall. We heard from the Preston Area Community Foundation, one of our Affiliate Funds, about the many ways they reinvest in the town. Leaders also talked about plans for a new veteran’s home as well as the community’s push for a new housing development.

We also heard about some of the challenges that our communities are facing, primarily the child care crisis, the workforce shortage and a lack of infrastructure for new housing. Despite these challenges, each place we stopped has made steps towards their own unique solutions.

The bus tour always reminds me that every community in our region – large or small – has a unique story to tell. As one person from Preston noted, people are the greatest asset we have in our communities. I couldn’t agree more.

Next year we look forward to touring Freeborn, Waseca and Blue Earth 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.