A New Year’s Resolution Wish

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by Reed Anfinson, Editor & Publisher

If we could make a New Year’s resolution for Swift County and the City of Benson it would be that they commit to economic development with the passion required to reshape our possibilities for a better future.
Currently, the economic development is left to chance. We react when someone walks in the door or calls on the phone. We do little, if any, prospecting. We do little strategic planning to enhance our economic development chances. We set no goals. We fail to identify the challenges and develop a plan for addressing them. We fail to look for ways to capitalize on the assets we have. Our economic policy is passive, not pro-active.
What we have learned through the years is that the current structure for economic development doesn’t work. The county’s Rural Development Authority (RDA) and the city’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) meet too infrequently to carry through with any real forward looking effort.
Both bodies will accept loan applications, review them, and make loans to help businesses start or expand, but that is pretty much the end of the effort. If there are no loan applications on the table, discussions are short or meetings postponed.
The bleakness of our future can be seen in the most recent census data released by the Minnesota State Demographic Center and in the class sizes in our schools. We are steadily losing population.
School enrollment figures have been dropping since the early 1970s from nearly 2,000 students to barely over 800 today. Where we were graduating 175 students each year in the 1970s, we are looking at class sizes of 50 to 70 today. Those numbers will continue to drop without a dramatic change in our efforts to repopulate rural Minnesota.
Swift County, as well as Pope, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone, are losing people yearly. Stevens has grown a little, but it has the University of Minnesota, Morris to offset the trends in other rural counties. Kandiyohi and Douglas have also grown slightly, but they have the economic engines of Willmar and Alexandria to help them out - along with much more active economic development efforts.

Most Recent County Population Data

County    2013    2010    Change
Swift          9,551    9,783    - 232
Pope        10,929    10,995    - 66
Stevens    9,748    9,726    + 22
Chippewa    12,146    12,441    - 295
Kandiyohi    42,351    42,239    + 112
Big Stone    5,127    5,269    - 142
Lac qui Parle    7,041    7,259    - 218
Douglas    36,529    36,009    + 520

“Demographic analysis suggests that we’re creating two Minnesotas. One will be the growing and employing Minnesota. The other will be a shadow of the first,” John Van Hecke, wrote in an article titled “Rural Minnesota’s Future Challenge” for the website Minnesota 2020. “Minnesota will look different 30 years from now. We’ll be older and more racially and ethnically diverse but its where people live and work that really leaps out.”
Where people will mostly live and work is the Twin Cities metro area, which will have expanded to be a corridor running from St. Cloud through the Twin Cities to Rochester. The western rural half of Minnesota will continue to diminish in population as well as economic and political strength.
 “I would challenge you and your economic development group to keep rolling your sleeves up and try to figure out how are we going to keep supplying a good labor force,” Kevin Wald of SpecSys told the RDA and EDA last April.
Wald had come to both bodies seeking $150,000 in economic development funds to help his Benson business add equipment to make it more efficient and to help it meet more stringently enforced pollution requirements.
When members of both the RDA and EDA told Wald it didn’t look as if it would be creating any new jobs with the public funds he was asking for – a fundamental requirement for economic development financing – he was ready with an answer.
“You have a hard time supplying humans in this county,” Wald said. “We will take 10 people right now. We will take two engineers and two IT right now if you can hand them to me. We have been advertising all over the state and we can’t get them. I have open slots right now that I haven’t been able to fill for six months.”

 

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