It was a week and a half that was full of meetings. I’ll admit this doesn’t sound all that exciting but there were nuggets of good conversation and some interesting presentations. The University of Minn. Extension Service’s Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (how’s that for a mouthful?) hosted a gathering of the other statewide sustainable development partnerships the Wednesday before last at the American Legion in Granite.
Granite Falls Chamber of Commerce Director Mary Gillespie and I each delivered welcome messages to the group, which numbered around 65. We stuck around for a while to listen to ideas about helping communities discover new ways of engaging the public and creating more livable communities. They covered a wide range including tourism attractions, cultural amenities, social justice, welcoming newcomers, outdoor recreation, community gardens, new forms of agriculture, clean energy, locally grown food, main street businesses, and even small-town grocery stores. That’s an amazing and ambitious agenda. The group also spent some time exploring the local farmers market and exploring the riverside areas in and near downtown Granite and came away impressed with the riverfront.
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Later in the week, Dane Smith, the president of Growth and Justice and former State Representative Matt Schmidt of Red Wing, stopped by for a visit. After a stroll on the footbridge, we settled in at Carl’s Bakery for coffee, doughnuts and conversation. Growth and Justice is a non-profit advocacy group that espouses fair and strong economic growth in Minnesota.
Dane Smith has been the organization’s president for several years after retiring from his job as a state capitol reporter for the StarTribune. He’s planning to step into semi-retirement at year’s end but still has a passion for Minnesota’s many nuances and is driven to exploring solutions to the state’s challenges. Matt Schmidt, also with Growth and Justice, is working on rural equity issues and the needs of rural communities.
We talked about the “us-versus-them” approach to governing Minnesota that’s taken root during the past handful of years and how that approach cultivates a rural-urban divide. We often hear that we’re getting the short end of the stick and that we should be getting more. Some of that may be true but some of it is more myth than reality. It’s also proven to be not very helpful in solving the problems and funding challenges for the rural areas.
We talked about some of those challenges, including the need for more daycare pro-viders and how to meet that need. Both Dane and Matt said that there they hear about the daycare shortage nearly everywhere they go in Minnesota. We won’t go too far into that issue this week but that daycare topic came up again at yet another meeting, held this past week in Fergus Falls at the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities’ annual summer conference. An interesting panel of reporters was there to share reflections on the latest state legislative session and issues that we might see coming this year.
Our discussion at the dinner table with Lori Sturdevant of the StarTribune started out as grandparents comparing notes. We were joined by Brian Bakst of Minnesota Public Radio and Bill Werner of the Minnesota News Network. Each of them mentioned they’re hearing about daycare shortages in all corners of the state and that it’s also an economic development issue. That’s certainly true in these parts. At a time when finding a job is easier than finding daycare for your kids, it has the makings of a something that could grow into a crises and simply has to be addressed. The conference in Fergus Falls included other discussions including environmental standards and the not-so-affordable costs for city residents when it comes to wastewater treatment expense.
The CGMC is expressing concern over the high cost of making wastewater treatment system improvements. These projects, while very expensive, at times can result in improvements that are very small and very difficult to measure. In other words, there may be only a very small gain for the hefty price paid by city residents. That can make the investment questionable and even unaffordable for local property tax payers.
Although the CGMC isn’t against making those improvements, it is fair to ask how effective the improvements are, given the high cost of the work. Additional state funding for the improvements that are demanded by the state would make this less of an issue, although the state may want to spend that money more wisely and instead take on pollution control projects that achieve bigger results at a more reasonable price. That would get better results for our investment. It’s called getting a bigger bang for our bucks.
There was also a presentation about the importance of manufacturing in so many Greater Minnesota communities, especially the prevalence of small manufacturers who play a huge part in our local economies and employment opportunities. When we talk about manufacturing, we often think of those sprawling operations employing hundreds and placing a stamp on a community’s identity. However, the vast majority of Minnesota’s manufacturers employ fewer than 50 and account for the lion’s share of the state’s manufacturing economy.
Manufacturing in Minnesota is very strong and getting stronger, thanks to the historic tie between manufacturing of all types and the state’s community and technical colleges. We can testify to that here with Minnesota West, and like here, that need keeps growing.
Not all of the CGMC conference involved meetings. We had a walking tour of historic downtown buildings in Fergus Falls and the four block downtown Riverwalk along the Otter Tail River, near their beautiful city hall. Otter Tail Power Company, which is headquartered in Fergus Falls, still generates electricity at a downtown dam nearby and the Riverwalk features lush terraced plantings, a walkway made of decorative pavers, bright murals and interesting vistas along the way as it ducks under arched bridges that span the river.
The city has done a nice job of displaying their local history and the colorful characters with kiosks and displays. They gave us lots of good ideas about community investment and community enhancement. These were meetings that proved to be well worthwhile.