This past week’s conference of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) in Mankato marks the end of my one-year term as the president of the CGMC. Most folks that finish out a term of leadership in an organization reflect a bit about how fast the time went and the wonderful work and support of staff and colleagues. I certainly can echo all those thoughts.

The CGMC is truly a great organization with members and staff that are dedicated and hard-working advocates for the services and opportunities of cities all over Greater Minnesota. Serving as the CGMC president was, of course, an honor but more importantly, it provided a platform for speaking up for the funding that our communities need as well as speaking out about the challenges we each face. It’s important work that takes time but is also very rewarding. It’s also important to take note of the many connections we make, from all around Minnesota, and how meaningful those connections are in serving our communities.

Of course it’s fun to know folks from all corners of the state but the real value involves sharing ideas and comparing notes about serving the needs and expectations of our residents. The CGMC has 97 member cities all over Greater Minnesota, outside of the seven-county Metro area. ranging in size from Rochester (population of 115,000) to Renville (population around 1,200).

Other member cities in our area include Willmar, Olivia, Benson, Alexandria, Marshall, Redwood Falls, Pipestone, Slayton, Glencoe and Hutchinson. While not every CGMC member city had attendees, the conference, which was cohosted by Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter, drew over 200 elected and appointed city officials as well as several legislators and consultants. The conference featured several presentations on human rights, housing and economic development.

There was also a panel discussion on water protection issues from a farmer’s viewpoint that included some good thoughts from Granite native Warren Formo, who serves as the executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center. The annual summer conference also gives each city a chance to share their story and show off the progress they are making in serving their residents. In St. Peter, much of that centered on recovering and growing since a devastating tornado struck in late March of 1998.

Coincidentally, our tour of St. Peter happened on the 18th anniversary of July 25, 2000 tornado that struck the west end of Granite. That gave me a chance to thank St. Peter City Manager Todd Prafke for the vast amount of information about disaster recovery that their city generously shared with us as we wound our way through the maze of regulations and funding possibilities.

The St. Peter tornado destroyed many of their community’s landmarks, but new buildings are in place and serving the city well. Their community center, built after the tornado on the former site of St. Peter Catholic Church, has an entire lower level dedicated to child day care operations. There are several classrooms and play areas, leased to two different non-profits that serve families with kids of all ages. Their city identified daycare as a very real need, early on in their tornado recovery and more so now.

Their city has also been in the business of developing new subdivisions and working with both private developers as well as regional housing partnerships to fill the need for replacement housing and to new affordable housing. Housing is an issue that nearly every city is grappling with these days as old houses are retired and new housing ideas are coming to the forefront. St. Peter now has a shortage of ready-to-build lots and is looking at more subdivision development. All of that takes time and their city’s growth is depending on that work to happen quickly. Mankato and North Mankato, which together total over 55,000 in population, offered choices for things to see and do including a tour of their bustling economic development areas, a public art walk or bicycling on their many paved trails near the Minnesota River.

We opted for bicycling along the river and passed their noteworthy Vetterstone Amphitheater, near the river in an old industrial area that was transformed into a destination park and outdoor event center. Notably, it was designed by Damon Farber and Associates, the same landscape architect firm that we are using for the upgrades to Memorial Park. It would have been interesting to get a closer look at the economic development work that Mankato and North Mankato have been undertaking.

By many measures, they are outpacing the growth of every Minnesota regional center including the Twin Cities and have been creative with public/private partnerships in spurring development and job growth.

Even with these interesting things to do and see, the highlight for many of us was the Governor Candidate Forum, attended by over 400 folks in the new Civic Center wing in Mankato’s large Verizon Center. DFL candidates Tim Walz and Erin Murphy and GOP candidate Jeff Johnson were there. DFL candidate Lori Swanson had planned to attend but was called away to a medical emergency involving her mother. GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty declined to attend after several contacts but offered to reschedule.

That was not going to be in the cards, so we proceeded with the three candidates. The forum, sponsored by the CGMC and Greater Mankato Growth, focused on issues that Greater Minnesota communities are dealing with, including Local Government Aid, housing, daycare (of course), funding for highways, streets and transit as well as issues that affect all Minnesotans like education and water/wastewater regulations.

It was a collegial and lively event and the reception afterward gave us all a chance to shake hands and chat with the candidates and was a good way to wrap up a busy day. We ended our conference the next morning with our annual meeting and the election of new officers. Long time Bemidji City Council member Ron Johnson was elected President for this next year.

Willmar City Council member Audrey Nelson moved up to First Vice President, Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka was elected Second V.P. and I will serve as Past President this coming year. Helping guide the good and resourceful work of the CGMC this past year was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Raising the profile of Granite Falls is always on my mind and that happens along the way, too. We look forward to building many more helpful connections.

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Correction: It was pointed out by a reader that last week’s River Ramblings column spelled the city of Lemmon, South Dakota two different ways. To be certain, it is indeed Lemmon, not Lemon (as in the citrus fruit). It’s good to know that readers are looking closely at every word!