WILLMAR - Communication, collaboration, efficiency, vision and leadership emerged as core values at a strategic planning session Thursday for Kandiyohi County department heads and County Commissioners.

By the time the day-long event was over, county leaders were ready to move ahead during a time of ongoing change and challenge for county government.

"I think we accomplished a lot," said Rollie Nissen, chairman of the County Board. "It's really important that we all buy into this and move forward as a county."

Although department heads and the County Board talk often about strategy, it has been some years since the last time they sat down together for more in-depth discussion and planning, said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.

"It's probably been a decade," he said.

The session Thursday was prompted by a need to look more closely at multiple issues that are currently simmering, from workforce demographics to technology, Kleindl said. "I think it is ongoing."

Facilitator Heather Bandeen of the Association of Minnesota Counties led the 21-person group through a series of exercises that ranged from one-on-one discussion to information-sharing by everyone in the room.

County employees identified several issues on the horizon that will have an impact on how the county provides services.

One of the largest is the future workforce.

The county workforce is aging and the workers who will replace them have a different set of expectations.

Hiring good people will be key, said Connie Mort, human resources director.

"Who are the people you want to bring into your team? Who is the person who is going to fit best?" she said.

Succession planning has become more important than ever, Kleindl said. "How do we grow our own?"

Demographics also are changing overall as Minnesota ages.

From 2000 to 2010, there were 91,000 Minnesotans who turned 65, Bandeen said. But from 2010 to 2020, this number is expected to skyrocket to 285,000, she said.

"The things that you're talking about are very much grounded in state data," she said.

This has implications for county services, said Jennie Lippert, director of Health and Human Services.

"I think more people are going to rely on county services," she said.

There was more:

• Kandiyohi County has become more diverse with a growing population of color.

• Customers increasingly expect technology, but developing an adequate technology infrastructure comes at a cost - and it can widen the gap between those who use it on a daily basis and members of the public who aren't comfortable with technology or don't have access to it.

• Nationally, the homeownership among young adults is declining, which may reduce part of the property tax base that local government historically has relied on.

• Economic change is straining the health of local retail.

County Commissioner Steve Ahmann worried about future unknowns.

"What if interest rates go up? What if the economy stagnates?" he said. "We need to be prepared for a downturn and to make decisions."

Session participants saw teamwork and partnerships as essential in positioning Kandiyohi County for whatever comes next.

"We want to make sure we don't have silos," said Tami Jo Lieberg, Community Corrections director.

Building leadership capacity, with more training in skills such as dealing with conflict and managing through change, will be part of the strategic plan.

Employees also spoke about the need to be open to change.

"We've got to think differently and be able to embrace whatever that is," said Mel Odens, Public Works director.

Participants summed up the day with words such as "inspiring," "enlightening" and "unity."

The goal is for the work to continue, Kleindl said.

"We're not going to put this on a shelf," he said. "I think department heads want to keep this going. We become better when we work together. I have great hope."