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Greater Minnesota could find its voice through collaboration

Willmar Municipal Utilities Commissioner Carol Laumer says the topic of a speaker at a recent state utilities association conference was timely.

The speaker from the Center for Rural Policy and Development of St. Peter discussed seeking solutions for Greater Minnesota’s future.

“I find this very timely: how to work together,’’ said Laumer, business development director for Rice Home Medical in Willmar.

Addressing the broader region of the state, Laumer asks, “How do we collaborate? How do we work together to make the voice for rural Minnesota?’’

There is consensus that rural Minnesota has lost influence in policy decisions made in the public and private sectors. What is less clear is how the region regains its voice as the population ages and declines, its legislative delegations shrink and an economy enters transition.

These were the findings in a study released in January by the Center for Rural Policy and Development. The research included in-depth interviews with policy and business leaders, an online survey of Minnesotans involved in rural issues, and a review of news media coverage. The research was conducted by Horner Strategies, LLC.

The study notes, among other things, that rural communities often end up competing aggressively with each other rather than joining forces to compete as a region. It also found that statewide organizations with the greatest influence focus more of their attention on the Twin Cities and regional communities.

Meanwhile, according to the study, fewer Minnesotans have a direct tie to rural communities and lifestyles and urban residents don’t understand the rural economy and the fact that many aspects of the rural economy are essential to making their urban lifestyles work.

An important finding is that there are fewer dominant and effective leaders, organizations and voices on behalf of broad rural Minnesota issues. Some traditional voices — including agriculture groups — have lost influence as natural resources and other Greater Minnesota industries become a smaller part of Minnesota’s economy.

Influence is also diminished as advocacy of rural Minnesota becomes more fragmented. Rural communities often end up competing more aggressively with each other rather than joining forces to compete as a region, said the report.

“Local chambers of commerce are recognized as important voices in rural Minnesota. However, they are under increasing pressure to deliver for their own communities,’’ according to the study.

“The incentives important to a chamber of commerce — retaining members and a local financial base — place greater emphasis on bringing a handful of jobs to a small community rather than joining forces to compete for a regional win.”

Laumer believes the focus should be regional and not just limited to a larger city within a region.

“I think that’s where the collaboration has got to come in,’’ she said. “As a bigger city, how do we help them survive because if they’re strong, as a regional center we will survive, too.’’

Laumer said rural Minnesotans will have to step up to the plate themselves instead of waiting for somebody else to do it. She urges rural Minnesotans to get involved.

“People have to be motivated and don’t wait for somebody else to do it,’’ said Laumer. “My favorite saying is, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’’’

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150