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We Must Retain Our Progressive Spirit

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
When we look at the now vacant lot where the Benson Power electric generation facility once sat, it’s easy to think about the loss. A 12-year-old $230 million energy facility employing more than 45 people and paying $832,000 in real estate taxes to local governments has been dismantled.

But there is encouragement future in the words of the state’s leaders who came to Benson 12 years ago to celebrate the grand opening of what was then known as Fibrominn.

“There is a long tradition in this part of the world of progressive politics and progressive leaders. It is appropriate that this would be the place where we would have this kind of revolution,” U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said at the grand opening.

 “Benson is a pretty remarkable town,” then U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman said. “Here in the heartland of western Minnesota, you are at the forefront of energy innovation.”

In his speech to Benson, then Gov. Tim Pawlenty quoted futurist Peter Drucker, who said, “The things that got us here will not get us there.”

He went on to say, “Drucker said the best way to predict the future is to go out and invent it yourself. There is a lot of wisdom in that statement. So, the town of Benson and its partners, and this region are seizing the future, inventing it themselves. Rather than have events and circumstances just come and plow into them, they are creating a future that is forward-looking, that has momentum, that brings capital investment and jobs to greater Minnesota, which are desperately needed.”

Pawlenty’s quoting of Drucker was unintentionally prescient. He would never have imagined Fibrominn’s quick demise.

Though Benson Power is gone, our spirit and leadership must persist as we move forward.

Benson is receiving $20 million from Xcel Energy over four years, with $10.5 million already in the bank, to pursue its next innovative economic development project. It’s compensation for the early closing of the power plant, the loss of the jobs, loss of economic vitality, and loss of real estate taxes that come with the closing of Benson Power. If used wisely, those funds allow us to build an even better future.

It now looks nearly certain that the Brightmark Energy project won’t be the part of Benson’s future we had hoped it would be. Rather than bemoan the lost opportunity, city leaders are hard at work with the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) finding another buyer and developer for the site.

What keeps you up at night

At one of its meetings this past year, Swift County’s commissioners were asked what the most critical strategic challenges our county faces in the coming years.

“The number one problem in our society is that we spend 99 percent of our time talking about what the problem is and 1 percent of the time trying to find a solution,” Commissioner Eric Rudningen, District 5-Kerkhoven, said. We couldn’t agree more with an added twist.

Local leaders tend to spend 80 percent of their time talking about the problems, 19 percent on possible solutions, and 1 percent implementing the answers they explored. Too often, that 1 percent effort evaporates over a short time to zero. Too often, there is a lack of will, focus, or support for doing what is needed to effect meaningful change.

Through the efforts of its council and City Manager Rob Wolfington, our city is quietly moving forward pursuing leads. Our future economic development is going to be a combination of nourishing from within and being open to the new entrepreneurs.

Realities and an open mind

This past summer, the City of Benson and Swift County were approached by entrepreneurs inquiring about starting a business here. It was encouraging news for a rural community trying to bring new businesses and employees to rural Minnesota. Those who approached our local economic development people were unique – none had a command of the English language.

America, and to a slower degree Minnesota, has been changing demographically in the past decade. Rural Minnesota has been much slower to change than the metropolitan areas of the state. But we had better prepare ourselves for change if we want to grow and thrive in the next decade.

We’ve shown we have the potential to be welcoming. Mi Mexico and J&J Chinese run respected and well-patronized business in Benson.

In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that by 2044 white Americans would represent fewer than half the population of America. It was a projection that stunned some, made a few feel threatened, and welcomed by others.

Recent U.S. Census data show the wave of demographic change occurring in America will lead to the demographic changes projected for 2044 is building. This past June, the Census Bureau showed that among Americans 15 years old or younger, whites account for 49.9 percent of the population – less than half.

We must prepare ourselves to welcome newcomers of all ethnic backgrounds if we want our area to grow. We’ve already seen the children of immigrants in our schools. It’s a beautiful sight to see them playing, laughing, and smiling with their new friends. If only adults could be so open and welcoming.

Local loyalty

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” It is a famous line from the newspaper cartoon series Pogo. In it, Pogo is looking at a wooded area strewn with junk as he holds a metal-tipped pickup stick. It’s Earth Day. The phrase is a recognition that humans are the cause of Earth’s most significant challenges.

In small town America, we apply this reference to residents who insist on driving out of town to shop in malls, big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, and buy groceries in chain-owned stores. Now it also applies to those who purchase what is readily available locally through Amazon.

We recently met a driver for UPS while dining out who gave us some insight into just how pervasive Amazon’s sales are in rural Minnesota. He said that 60 percent of the deliveries he makes are Amazon packages. We have met the enemy.

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