Nearly every community in Minnesota is looking for ways to benefit from the momentous and accelerating statewide shift to local and renewable energy. Wind and sun are particularly abundant in our southwest corner, and the Southwest RDC is out front guiding the transition. It has helped develop a unique Property Assessed Clean Energy program that allows businesses and farmers to find upfront capital by borrowing against future tax assessments. SRDC also has been a leader of an innovative, new 18-county Rural Minnesota Energy Board, and it works closely with the highly effective statewide Clean Energy Resource Teams, which are helping build a growing list of certified rural “Green Step” cities.
Affordable housing in the Headwaters
Consensus is overwhelming that an affordable-housing shortage is hindering rural economic development, and the Headwaters RDC in the north-central region is among the most creative and ambitious players filling that need. Among initiatives: partnerships with both the Bemidji and Blackduck high schools in which students learn construction trades and actually build a house every year; building affordable multiple-family housing; providing financing to restore substandard single-family units; offering down-payment assistance; and delivering a Home Stretch program that helps low-income folks on the path to homeownership.
Highways, mobility and safe routes in the Arrowhead
Rural Minnesota desperately needs a major transportation funding package to improve highways and bridges, but many regions are as focused as urban communities on transit service and mobility, also promoting the health benefits of walking and bicycling. The Arrowhead RDC in northeastern Minnesota is a leader in developing the Safe Routes to School program and promoting projects that emphasize an active-living approach, with positive impact on both health and natural-resource preservation. The RDC is also helping develop scenic byways to take advantage of the region’s traditional allure to tourists and vacationers, including a lesser-known Avenue of the Pines route from Deer River to Northome.
Equity and welcoming in South Central
Growing racial diversity in this region is offsetting white population loss and aging trends, filling labor demands and lowering the average age in some counties. Thanks to a large Latino workforce, for instance, St. James and Watonwan County now rank among the most diverse places in Minnesota. In alignment with the DevelopMN strategy to “embrace emerging populations” as assets, Region Nine in south-central Minnesota is building a framework for more inclusive and welcoming communities. In 2018, in partnership with the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Community Vitality, Region Nine launched a seven-month project convening 45 entities from five communities to explore best practices and, through education and relationship-building, to facilitate community action.
Further exploration of DevelopMN strategies will be a focus of a June 27-29 gathering in Granite Falls called “Thriving by Design: Rural and Urban Together,” to which the public has been invited; space is still available. The event is being organized by Growth & Justice and OneMN.org, a statewide business-minded coalition of leaders working toward racial equity and keeping Minnesota “open, inclusive, welcoming, innovative and creative.”
We know that candidates, news media and social media in coming months are likely to feature divisive issues, regional enmity and simplistic solutions. But we also know there is an emerging private-public-nonprofit sector consensus around attractiveness and place-making as an essential theme for a comprehensive “One Minnesota” development strategy.