Following Through On Commitments

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

 

We’ve become quite cynical over the years about conducting studies. That cynicism is based on repetitive experience. A need is identified, there is considerable sincere discussion about the challenges and opportunities, a study is commissioned, citizens are invited to give input, the findings of the study are presented and, finally, a set of goals and objectives identified.

What we have repeatedly seen is that the study is shelved. Its demise doesn’t happen overnight but is inevitable. There may be a price tag to implement the recommendations; so elected leaders are hesitant to act. Those charged with implementing it are too distracted by their daily responsibilities resulting in no dedicated follow through. What were once weekly discussions become monthly discussions and then periodic discussions until the study is one more binder on a shelf gathering dust.

Promises to revisit the study to implement its goals and objectives go unfulfilled. Leaders become resigned to a role of maintenance while keeping busy monitoring daily routines and operations. At best we maintain the status quo, but more likely the challenges get more pressing.

It is a problem at the state, regional and local levels of government.

Back in June 2006, Swift County’s Board of Commissioners created a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) made up of leaders from throughout the county charging it to come up with economic development ideas. In July 2007, the study was presented to the county board.

It focused on identifying economic development opportunities that could capitalize on the growth of ag-related businesses in the county. It saw future opportunities in the successes of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, Fibrominn, and East Dublin Dairy. However, it wanted to see more diversification.

Nine people were named to the BRC, given $10,000 to carry out their study, and provided administrative support from the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission.

It looked at the challenges Swift County was facing – trends that seemed locked in and threatened the future health of its communities - declining population, a declining and aging labor force, fewer farms, and fewer kids in the schools. It was going to take a concentrated, dedicated, creative effort to change the path we were headed down.

Times haven’t changed since the county board commissioned that study, except that every challenge faced back then has gotten worse. And what of the study? Shelved.

When it presented its report to the county board, the BRC listed four recommendations: hire a renewable energy development director, pursue the wind energy industry, look at the construction of a biodiesel facility, and pursue ideas within the new biofuels industry. All remain relevant today.

While identifying four main areas to pursue, the commission also listed eight other opportunities to consider for economic development including livestock partnerships such as East Dublin Dairy, methane digesters, hydrogen power, and processing plants for such products as cheese, specialized flour, or soy products.

These BRC recommendations were designed to aid the county board in crafting a strategy to ensure population growth would supply businesses with employees, retain our current number of jobs and create new ones, and see new business that want to expand here.

For the recommendations to be successful members of the BRC told the county board, it was going to have to fundamentally change its approach to economic development. Specifically, the county was going to have to hire a full-time energy development director.

“We will come back to this many, many times,” Swift County Blue Ribbon Commission Member Harmon Wilts told the county board at the July 17, 2007, meeting. “This one recommendation will determine the success of the remaining recommendations.”

“You challenged us to come up with some ideas on what it takes to be successful. That means bringing in outside help and expertise…” in the form of a person knowledgeable in alternative energy, Wilts said. He told the county board that the blue ribbon commission felt strongly that hiring an energy coordinator wasn’t a six-month or one-year trial, but at least a three-year commitment.

The BRC was right on track with its recommendation. Over the past decade, we have seen a steady expansion of wind and solar energy in Minnesota as the technology to make both effective and reliable sources of power.

At the time, the county board dismissed the BRC’s recommendation stating that it already had an economic development director at its Rural Development Authority (RDA) and that it didn’t have the funds. When asked how she felt about working in the renewable fuel energy area back in 2007, RDA Executive Director Jennifer Frost replied that biofuels were not one of her areas of expertise.

“We need to move forward all the time, now, two years from now, five years from now, we have to be progressive,” Commissioner Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, said back in 2007. If, as time goes by and the RDA needs additional help because there is so much going on, the county could move in that direction, he added.

If Frost were to pursue renewable fuels opportunities, and the efforts were promising, then the county might have to look at a bigger RDA at some point, former Commissioner Dick Hanson agreed. “We are probably going to have to invest more in economic development as time goes on,” he said.

While the county board felt it couldn’t afford to hire an energy director, and that it would see how Frost would take on the challenge, it also agreed that it couldn’t simply shelve the report.

“We said we weren’t just going to put it in the closet and forget about it,” former Commissioner Doug Anderson of Kerkhoven said.

“The Blue Ribbon Commission was very passionate about its work, and I don’t think we should just put their report on the shelf now and say thanks, but no thanks,” Commissioner Pete Peterson, District 3-south Benson, said at in August 2007.

Today, the need for action is even more pressing than it was in 2007. We may not require an energy-focused economic developer, but we do need a more engaged economic development commitment from the county. What we have learned about studies is that someone must be singularly charged with following through.

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