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Campaign aimed at frustrated Twin City commuters touts life in Renville County

Students from the BOLD and St. Mary's Catholic elementary schools in Bird Island were joined Wednesday by a handful of adults for a photo opportunity in downtown Bird Island. This and similar photos shot last week in Buffalo Lake and Stewart could be made part of a billboard inviting Twin Cities commuters stuck in traffic to move to Renville County. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

BIRD ISLAND -- You're stuck in traffic on Interstate 394 in Minneapolis wondering once again why you put up with this when a billboard filled with the smiling faces of young children standing on small town Main Streets invites you to move to Renville County.

Hey, and bring your business along.

That's the message that John Hubin, publisher of the weekly newspapers serving Hector, Bird Island and Buffalo Lake, intends to plant alongside what he calls the "big parking lot," better known as Interstate 394 in Minneapolis.

The smiling faces have already done their part. Elementary students from the BOLD and St. Mary's Catholic schools in Bird Island joined Wednesday while photographers captured their friendly smiles and waves. Last Thursday, similar photo shoots were held on the Main Streets of both Buffalo Lake and Stewart for the same purpose.

The photos will be published in the local newspapers next week as part of a salute to volunteerism in Renville County, but the ultimate goal is to make them part of an advertising campaign in the Twin Cities.

Hubin is working with Chris Hettig, director of the Renville County economic development agency, in hopes of raising $10,000 from supporters and grants. That's the approximate cost to place a billboard along I-394 for a month in the heart of Minneapolis, Hubin said.

If the $10,000 can't be raised, Hubin said they will look at lower cost billboards to the west, possibly even along U.S. Highway 212 if necessary.

Hubin, who has been part of the family's newspaper in Hector for more than three decades, is convinced that Renville County and this area west of the Twin Cities is the right place for metropolitan business expansion to occur. "We are the last outpost in all of the sections of Minnesota, northwest, northeast, that still has viability," he said.

He gained his perspective on the frustrations of driving in the Twin Cities through his own travels, but especially as a member of the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies. He meets regularly with its members, some of them business owners in the Twin Cities. He hears over and over again the difficulties they face in finding space to expand, and their frustrations with traffic congestion and life in the large urban area.

He knows that many people are open to the idea of locating outside the metropolitan area and is optimistic that now more than ever, they might start looking west. He is also supporting efforts to bring back passenger rail service on the Twin Cities & Western Railroad line that runs parallel to U.S. Highway 212. He believes it could play a major role in directing business expansion to the west.

Hettig said it is too early to know how much financial support can be lined up for the advertising campaign, but she too believes that the area could benefit by catching the attention of frustrated commuters in the Twin Cities.

"We get closer every year," said Hettig in reference to the metropolitan area's continued expansion. While pointing out that most economic growth in Renville County comes from within, she said that her office does receive inquiries from metropolitan-based companies looking for what rural areas can offer. Sometimes it's because the owners are looking for safe places to live and raise their families.

From the business perspective, she said they are also looking for exactly what the county can offer them: Affordable space for their business, a highly educated work force with a strong work ethic and, she added, "no traffic jams."