An Opportunity For Input On Rural Policy

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Those who read this column know we have a passion for community newspapers and believe strongly they remain essential to an informed and healthy community. We’ve backed that commitment up in the past by serving on the boards of both the Minnesota Newspaper Association and National Newspaper Association, working to promote and support community newspapers.

We also have a passion for encouraging local leaders and citizens to do what it takes to ensure we have a vibrant community that is always looking forward, not looking back. Our community leaders need to be innovative and willing to take chances to spur economic development and community growth.

For decades, economic development focused on helping businesses with their costs of construction, expansion and cash flow. Those tools are still necessary, but every bit as important are efforts that ensure there is adequate and flexible daycare for families, that there is affordable housing, good schools with space and programs for early childhood education as well as programs that meet the needs of students graduating into today’s workforce and post-secondary education world. A community has to be attractive in the way it presents itself to prospective residents and in what it offers for recreation and leisure.

Being responsible with taxpayer dollars while striving to achieve these goals is important, but sitting cautiously and conservatively on the sidelines only puts a community in reverse.

We believe the health of communities and community newspapers are intertwined, co-dependent. But the health and sustainability of both are threatened by the steady decline in rural population. We have an aging population, young people leave for the big city for school and jobs, and the class sizes in our schools get ever smaller. Local businesses find it harder to get workers to fill openings and retailers see their gross revenues shrinking.

Rather than sit back and complain about the state of rural Minnesota, rather than just write about the plight, we thought it would be better to get involved. (That falls into another one of common themes – civic involvement.) So we wrote to Gov. Mark Dayton last year applying for an open position on the board of directors of the Center for Rural Policy and Development. Last week we were notified we had been appointed to a five-year term.

“The Center for Rural Policy and Development is a non-partisan, not-for-profit policy research organization dedicated to benefiting Minnesota by providing its policy makers with unbiased information and evaluation of issues from a rural perspective,” its web site says.
Its members come from across the state and a variety of backgrounds including education, local government, foundations and business. The governor appoints 13 members while two are appointed by the state’s House and Senate leadership. There are five at-large members appointed by the Center’s board.

The Center says its mission is to: “provide high quality and objective research to examine and advance policy and decision-making, advocacy, and civic engagement for Greater Minnesota’s development.” It goes on to say that its vision is to “be the leading and most trusted source of research and recommendations to advance policies that improve the quality of life in Greater Minnesota.” That research and those recommendations are supposed to find themselves in the hands of state leaders who can then use them to implement policies and programs that help rural Minnesota.

“A strong Minnesota requires a healthy and vibrant Greater Minnesota,” the Center’s website says. “We are committed to supporting quality decision-making that will positively impact Greater Minnesota’s ability to thrive.”

There is a lot we like about the Center’s mission and vision.

Our world is changing. Does that mean small communities no longer have a place in this global economy and a state and national economy where large population centers continually expand while small towns dry up? Where big box stores and Amazon thrive and main street dies? Have we given up on fostering loyalty to community? We don’t think so.

Sometimes, we think, the organizations that are established to study the problems and challenges of rural Minnesota and small towns too often take an academic approach. There is a lot of thinking going on, a lot of pointing out where the problems lie, but very little in the way of offering solutions.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development is a well-respected organization that is a strong voice for rural Minnesota. We hope to contribute to its efforts to improve the lives of those who do business, work and live in the rural areas of our state. We would also like to see that its good work is implemented into actions that strengthen our rural communities.

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