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Strengthening Our Communities In Wake Of COVID-19

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
As a new year begins, we look with hope toward a time when our families will be safe from the deadly coronavirus, when our businesses can once again all be open to customers, and when we can gather with friends in public spaces.

We know that some of our local businesses have been forced to shut down during the COVID1-9 pandemic, and many others have seen their bottom lines turn from black to red. They are going to need help in the coming months from both individuals and local governments. Yes, we will be looking for aid from the federal and state governments as well.

This once-in-one-hundred-year pandemic has changed our buying habits in good and bad ways. It has been good for some local businesses that have been able to stay open, with local residents choosing to shop closer to home. They’ve wanted to avoid the large regional centers where the virus has been much more prevalent. We can only hope this habit of shopping locally has become ingrained.

On the bad side, it is too easy to buy from Amazon or some corporate online business hundreds of miles away. If you believe in your community, if you want to see it succeed, whenever possible support local businesses. As we do our best to support local businesses, so should our local governments.

Every local government department should assess what it is not buying from local businesses, then their boards, councils, or commissions should direct staff to buy locally – even if it costs a little more.

While the pandemic has ravaged small businesses, especially those in dining and entertainment, giant companies like Amazon have seen billions in new revenue. They devour purchasing dollars that were once spent in our communities. This trend will not be easily reversed.

“People are losing their dreams and livelihoods. Neighborhoods are losing beloved local stores and gathering spots. The country is losing much of its local productive capacity,” authors Deborah and James Fallows write in The Atlantic. “To answer this generational challenge, we must have a federal economic recovery strategy focused on rebuilding, creating, and growing America’s small, independent businesses.”

They urge federal and state governments “to provide more generous and flexible funding” to governors and mayors across the country to help rebuild their states and communities. For many in need, waiting for the federal and state governments to act will take too long. Our businesses need help now. This is where our local governments need to step in with their resources, in the form of grants, low-interest loans, or increased local purchasing.

Rural communities across America have learned that economic development today isn’t just about having buildings and land available. We know that young families are looking for communities where there are social and recreational opportunities for them and their children.

“In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that more urban (30%) and suburban (35%) residents are interested in moving to a rural community than rural residents (20%) are interested in moving to an urban community, an increasingly possible trend in light of this year,” Chris Harris Senior Program Officer, Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, writes.

We can’t afford to lose our restaurants and bars, bowling alleys, movie theatres, and other social gathering spaces in rural Minnesota. They are essential to our future.

“With encouraging news of COVID-19 vaccines and a good sense of what we’ve learned from working remotely, we now have an idea of what the future of work will look like: a hybrid model of in-office and remote work,” Ben Tranel, principal and regional leader for Gensler’s Office Buildings-Developer, writes.

“When we can return to the office and resume other in-person activities, creating places for people to spend time together and rebuild community — not just in the workplace, but in every aspect of our daily lives — will be more important than ever.

“How do we rebuild and restore a sense of community after being physically apart?” he asks. ““How can we rebuild the workplace that sparks innovation, connection and community? How do we ensure those connections extend beyond the workplace?”

Supporting our local businesses will ensure those social gathering places are still here when we get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the challenges that existed before the pandemic of declining rural population, fewer kids attending our schools, fewer people worshiping in our churches, and fewer buying groceries and other goods, have been accelerated.

“COVID-19 has not just exposed the challenges faced in rural America; it has made plain that there is no longer comfort in believing there is time to find eventual solutions. Rural leaders, entrepreneurs, and communities must now move with urgency to implement the solutions they have long understood to be necessary,” Harris writes.

“Innovation, diversity of ideas and people, and new concepts don’t need to be imported to rural communities – they’re already there. Rural entrepreneurs and community leaders have always, by necessity, been innovative,” he writes. But those traits must be nurtured. In too many communities, they are stunted by leaders who lack the entrepreneurial spirit required to energize growth. They doom their communities to further, and perhaps faster, decline in the post-pandemic era.

When historians look back on this challenging time, will our community be one people point to as a success story in the post-pandemic world? Or will it be just one more forgotten failed small town whose leaders didn’t act?

In our four decades now of covering public bodies from city councils, to county commissions, to school boards, to hospital commissions we’ve see all styles of leadership and the lack of it. We’ve seen periods incredible innovative thinking that have propelled a community forward and stretches of meagre support that have held it back.

Author Oscar Wilde once said, “Nowadays, people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” When this thinking it is applied to economic recovery in a community, it will be devastating to its future hopes.

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