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Region developing strategies for growth

UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY -- Per capita incomes in the region have been on a downward slide for 16 years relative to the rest of the state.

Consolidation in agriculture means young people continue to leave the region.

The region's health care industry is doing well, but it's difficult to carry its economic bang to other sectors.

And, the manufacturing industry in the southern half of Minnesota is so diverse it is hard to get an arm around it and direct growth to benefit a wider area.

These are the challenges Southwestern and much of southern Minnesota is facing -- and addressing -- at a series of roundtables being hosted by the Southwest Initiative Foundation in partnership with the Rural Policy Research Institute's Center for Regional Competitiveness at the University of Missouri.

"We have to partner like never before to be as successful as we need to be,'' said Mark Drabenstott, of the Center of Regional Competitiveness by way of introducing the challenges at the last in the series of roundtables held Wednesday at the Prairie's Edge Casino Resort near Granite Falls.

Drabenstott and Sherry Ristau, Southwest Initiative Foundation CEO, hosted similar, regional roundtables in Blue Earth and Rochester as well as a series of 10 smaller, community sessions. Their goal is to build partnerships among industries within the region to address the issues.

Six areas of economic opportunities have been identified by participants, according to Drabenstott. Manufacturing, health care, food and agriculture, renewable energy, bioscience and high technology offer the region its best strategic opportunities, he said.

Participants at Wednesday's forum most often cited renewable energy and bio-science as offering the most promise for the southwestern region. Raising genetically modified crops to produce pharmaceuticals and producing biomass for renewable energy are two areas where the region may enjoy a competitive advantage, Drabenstott and others pointed out.

Along with focusing on specific industries, participants also called for region-wide initiatives to build the infrastructure needed for economic growth.

Randy Abbott, with the Schwann's Food Company in Marshall, argued for building an "entrepreneurial culture'' in the region. He called for giving entrepreneurialism the same attention and emphasis in our K-12 education system as sports now receive.

Others called for steps to make more financial capital available in the region through community foundations and similar efforts. Drabenstott said there is an effort afoot in the region to copy a Nebraska program aimed at keeping more of the wealth from the "greatest generation'' within the region.

Improving the region's transportation system and doing more to take advantage of higher education resources were also cited.

Don't neglect the importance of intangibles like hometown loyalty when it comes to economic development either. Jim Sieben, president of Nova-Tech Engineering on the MinnWest campus in Willmar, told participants that the company struggled for five years before turning a profit.

Now, it employs over 40 full time workers.

From its start in 1992, Nova-Tech has had lots of opportunities to go elsewhere and was courted heavily by Sioux Falls, S.D. Sieben said a partnership with Willmar Poultry, JOBZ, and support from Willmar and Kandiyohi County all made it possible for the company to grow and succeed.

But at the heart of it all, the reason the company stayed put was a matter of hometown loyalty, he explained.