Celebrating Diversity: “Not Your Grandparents’ Greater Minnesota”

Minnesota is often split into two regions – metro and rural – especially when talking state politics. Historically, this dichotomy took on the subtext of business versus agriculture and mining. However, since the farm crisis of the 1980s, Greater Minnesota realized the importance of diversifying beyond agriculture as the mainstay of our economy. These efforts are paying off. “It’s not your grandparents’ Greater Minnesota anymore,” writes Joyce Hoelting of University of Minnesota Extension in an overview of a report on the economic composition of Minnesota’s 80 non-metro counties.

"Economically, there are many Greater Minnesotas, and the diversity of Greater Minnesota is its strength," says Brigid Tuck, Senior Economic Impact Analyst at the Center for Community Vitality. Even within Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s (SMIF) 20-county region there is a broad range of entrepreneurial efforts, from manufacturing to creative placemaking, tech start-ups to a reimagining of what agriculture looks like.

As we move further into the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly important for our non-metro regions to build on these enterprising efforts. Part of this effort involves recognizing the diversity of people and places that already exists. To this end, in July, SMIF staff, Board, and other stakeholders are embarking on a “regional road trip.” We’ll take a bus tour of the four western-most counties of our region: Brown, Faribault, Martin, and Watonwan. We’ll see how our investments are taking root in cities like Blue Earth and Fairmont, where companies such as Simplified Ag Technology and Visions are manufacturing new farm equipment components and creating jobs.

To further the storytelling of how Greater Minnesota is increasingly more than an agricultural and mining hub, The McKnight Foundation has commissioned Jay Walljasper to do a four-part series on the non-metro regions. The first, Small Towns, Big Ideas: Reimagining Southeast Minnesota, takes a look at the eastern part of SMIF’s region. Walljasper points to several of SMIF's loan and grant recipients as examples of innovation in the region: the diversification of agriculture and growth in local foods, noting Main Street Project’s “agripreneur program” focused on increasing the capacity of immigrant farmers and the success of Feast! Local Food Network; Red Wing’s Innovation Incubator, created to nurture entrepreneurs; small communities focusing on arts as an economic development tool, such as Lanesboro; and manufacturing companies exploring alternative uses for agricultural products, like Bio-Plastics LLC in Blooming Prairie.

In addition to supporting projects like the above, SMIF is playing an active role in other conversations around regional diversity. In July, we’re partnering with several Rochester-area businesses and organizations to explore how increasing supplier diversity of corporations like Mayo and Hormel is a smart double-bottom line strategy. We’re continuing to support projects that emerged from our Regional Community Growth Initiative grant that will expand the benefits of Rochester’s Destination Medical Center in the surrounding communities.

In all of these efforts to diversify our local economies, we rely on our Board of Directors to help us meet the varying needs of our region. In June, we welcomed three new Board members and say good-bye to two. This is an annual process which allows us to benefit from a broad range of talent and viewpoints as we shape our policies and long-term plan. Our now 15-person Board represents 15 counties, as well as a broad range of industry sectors, including early childhood, education, healthcare, finance, law, and business. Their varied perspectives make for rich – and often challenging – discussions.

These debates and challenges are necessary as we move forward. They come from a shared interest to help our communities prosper. We believe that supporting a diversity of people and economic opportunities strengthens not only Greater Minnesota, but our state as a whole. As Tuck says, after examining their research: “Every industry, and every part of the state, is going to have booms and busts. That's why our diversity is our strength.”

For detailed information on the top economic leaders in the 12 regions of greater Minnesota, see the University of Minnesota Extension reports. As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.

Referenced articles can be found at the below links:

Getting to Know Greater Minnesota: http://www.extension.umn.edu/community/news/getting-to-know-greater-Minnesota/
Small Towns, Big Ideas: Reimagining Southeast Minnesota: https://www.mcknight.org/system/asset/document/912/original/FFT_JUNE2015.pdf
Economic Composition of Greater Minnesota: Industries and Performance: http://www.extension.umn.edu/community/economic-impact-analysis/reports/economic-composition/

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