A Drop of Ink: Finding Solutions For Rural Challenges

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By Reed Anfinson

Publisher

Each year the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD) conducts a Thought Leaders Survey to find out what Minnesota’s local governments, educators, newspaper editors, legislators, and business leaders see as the biggest challenges facing the state. In all, about 3,000 people receive the survey.

As they considered their responses to the survey, those who received it were asked to rate the importance of each topic as one of the following: “urgent,” “important but not urgent,” or “not important.” There were 321 responses to the survey.

The center’s staff compiled the results and ranked the concerns with its board deciding at its early June board meeting which topics deserve in-depth research and reporting. Its non-partisan research is intended to inform state legislators who will use it as they craft laws and fund budgets that could address those challenges.

Members of the center’s board are appointed by the governor. They come from the farming community, non-profit foundations, business, education, social services, community development, local governments, and healthcare. One state Representative and one state Senator are appointed by their respective bodies to the board. For full disclosure, we serve as a business member of the CRPD board.

Past research by the center has been helpful to legislators as they addressed Minnesota’s child care, housing, workforce, and broadband needs. While there are obvious needs we agree need addressing, the center also considers issues that don’t rank high in public awareness or concern but could have a profound impact on rural communities.

“So, what keeps you up at night, worrying about rural Minnesota?” Marnie Werner, the center’s research director, writes in an introduction to its recent survey. “Is it economic development? Housing? Access to healthcare? Long-term care? Child care? The deepening workforce shortage?”

Among those who responded to the survey, the mental healthcare shortage in rural Minnesota ranked first, with 70 percent saying there was an urgent need to address it. That makes sense, Werner writes. “The pandemic made it painfully clear how difficult it has become to deliver mental health services in rural areas,” she says.

For the coming year, the center will focus its research on mental health care in rural Minnesota and the following five topics. The percentages represent the number of survey respondents who said addressing the issue was an urgent need.

 Ranked second highest among the issues needing urgent attention was the workforce shortage in rural Minnesota. Sixty-three percent of respondents said the shortages urgently needed addressing. Current labor shortages, and projected shortages in future years, need solutions to keep rural businesses and manufacturers operating and growing.

Sixty percent of the respondents said looking into “what financing and regulatory policies could help rural communities incentivize smaller-scale housing development” was an urgent need. 

Providing incentives at the state level for developers of rural housing is challenging. That leaves communities and construction firms taking on the housing development risk and expense.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said there was an urgent need to specifically look at what it could do to support workforce recruitment efforts in rural Minnesota. Minnesota’s unemployment rate stands at a record low of 2 percent, stifling the ability of businesses to meet customer demand for products.

Rural Minnesota faces a severe housing shortage. What is needed is a better understanding of what kinds of housing we need to meet the needs and demands of current and future residents. Providing the right housing is essential to attracting new residents to our rural areas to fill job openings on main street and in our industry.

Among those surveyed, 55 percent of the center’s survey respondents said assessing the composition of the current housing needs – single-family, apartment, townhouse – was an urgent need. They also said there was a need to determine how much new construction is taking place. High costs of construction materials, labor, and rising interest rates are all contributing to slowing new construction.

In today’s challenging rural health environment, it is difficult for individual hospitals and clinics to operate independently. That has led to consolidations with larger regional providers. Those consolidations can be good, strengthening health care availability and stability, or end in the loss of a local facility.

Another impact of those consolidations has been on the emergency medical services provided to rural communities. Forty-nine percent of the survey’s respondents said the effect of those consolidations EMS agencies urgently needed addressing.

While it didn’t rank high in the survey results, there was another question that the CRPD board felt should be looked at in the future. Here’s the question:

“Local newspapers have been disappearing at a steady rate for decades, especially in rural areas. How does this trend impact rural residents’ access to local news, and how does that impact civic engagement in rural communities?”

Surveys conducted by the newspaper industry have shown that people highly value their local newspapers but think they are doing okay. The facts say they aren’t. Over 2,100 newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, and more than 200 counties in America no longer have a newspaper.

“We have our work cut out for us, but this kind of research, the kind that gets to the heart of issues, figuring out not just what the issue looks like but what makes it tick, is what motivates us,” Werner writes of the survey results. “To find real, lasting solutions, it’s not enough to identify an issue; you need to understand what’s causing it and what’s feeding it.”

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