The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) serves 20 counties. While this is just a fraction of the state, it’s a large area: It takes over three and a half hours to drive from Springfield to Spring Grove – and that’s without road construction or snow drifts. In the course of our work, many SMIF staff members travel thousands of miles every year crisscrossing the region in support of early childhood, entrepreneurial, and community activities. Though SMIF’s governing Board members come from 15 of our 20 counties, we recognize the need for them – along with SMIF staff – to become more familiar with our entire region. So, going forward, every year we will schedule a bus tour of three or four counties exploring challenges, changing demographics, as well as causes for celebration.
On this year’s tour we covered our four western-most counties: Brown, Faribault, Martin, and Watonwan. We passed through and stopped in many of the 36 communities located in these four counties. We heard from current and former Board members, local business owners, civic servants, farmers, educators, the “returning” demographic of young families choosing to relocate to rural, and many others. Topics discussed ranged from entrepreneurism to education, broadband access to agriculture. The insights we gleaned will be helpful to us as we continue our Foundation’s work.
Here are some highlights we heard along the way:
First, manufacturing and agriculture are both strong in this area, together making up 50 percent of the south central region’s economic output. However, manufacturers, like Wayne Kahler of Kahler Automation in Fairmont, expressed concern about finding enough skilled workers, as all four counties have experienced population loss in the last decade and only 17.5 percent of those over 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. We also listened to concerns facing agriculture including the transition of land from retiring farmers to a younger generation.
Second, entrepreneurship is alive and well. We spoke with Cup ‘n Saucer Café co-owners Seth and Elizabeth Lintelman in Sherburn, where we stopped for morning rhubarb caramel bread pudding. They won the café in an essay contest and happily took the opportunity to leave the Twin Cities to own their own business. Similarly, we met with Derek Tonn, CEO of a national map-making company called Mapformation (www.mapformation.com), who moved with his family from St. Paul to Springfield seeking a better quality of life for his kids and also to grow his business. This highlighted a need for improved broadband services to allow small business owners like Derek who can “work from anywhere” the option of choosing rural. David Krause of Pioneer Bank in St. James stressed the need for technical assistance from organization’s like SMIF’s to help small and minority businesses succeed.
Third, quality education for our next generation is a top priority. At our break-out session at the St. James Library, we talked about the difficulties confronting rural schools, such as attracting quality teachers, keeping up with technology, collaborating with neighboring schools to attract resources, and handling the dynamics of both low-income students and non-English speaking families. On average, only 58 percent of third grade students in this area are achieving reading standards. We are proud that SMIF has offered our Quality Child Care Program trainings in all four of these counties, but we recognize that more needs to be done to ensure that children enter kindergarten ready to learn.
Finally, it is clear that community pride is strong. In New Ulm, we heard about the town’s history and many cultural festivals from former SMIF Board member Denis Warta while we enjoyed Schell’s 1919 Root Beer. At all our stops, people were excited to welcome us and tell us about their hopes for the future.
At day’s end, when we got off the bus in Blue Earth, we felt a renewed sense of the importance of SMIF’s work in the region along with a feeling of urgency to strengthen our partnerships to keep this a prosperous and growing region.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at email@example.com or 507-455-3215.