On Strengthening Rural Minnesota
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.

Earlier this summer I was discussing with some metro area colleagues the many challenges we face in rural Minnesota. And throughout our conversation I was repeatedly asked, “So what do we have to do to fix these problems?”  Unfortunately in hindsight, my response was simply too academic, choosing to emphasize the complexity and chronic nature of many of our most challenging issues.  But it made me ask myself seriously, what do we need to do to start strengthening rural Minnesota and its economy?

So here’s my quick five-step program to strengthen rural Minnesota:

Step 1: Recognize that rural Minnesota is a very diverse place.
Let me say this as straight as possible: there is no singular, homogeneous Minnesota.  In rural Minnesota today you will find regions where community populations are declining, the percentage of elderly residents is disproportionately high and business development is meager. However, in other parts of rural Minnesota you will find rapidly growing communities and growing economies.  Simply put, that’s why one-size-fits-all rural policy solutions won’t work. Accordingly, we need our policymakers to provide our rural regions the flexibility to craft solutions that are tailored to their needs and their situation.

Step 2: Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure!
Whether it’s roads, bridges, sewer, water, electricity or high-speed telecommunications, the reality is that infrastructure is the foundation of economic and community development.  No matter how nice the house looks, if it rests on a failing foundation, it will simply crumble. We can’t build a first-class rural economy with third-class infrastructure.

Step 3: Enhance the types of public investments we make in rural places.
Many argue that the federal government under-invests in rural places.  While there is some truth to that, a greater issue is actually in the type of public investments the government makes.  According to the Rural Policy Research Institute, more than 60 percent of federal dollars sent each year to rural America go directly to individuals in the form of social security, farm payments, veterans’ benefits and other types of individual transfer payments.  On the other hand, over 60% of the federal dollars that go to urban America go for community development and infrastructure.  Infrastructure like roads, transit, housing, airports, and water and sewer systems.  Put another way, a majority of federal funds that go to urban places help develop the foundation for community and economic development, but the majority of such dollars that go to rural America do not.  We simply have to change that.

Step 4: Invest in the development of human capital.
Few investments are as mistake-proof as the investments we make in the people who reside in rural Minnesota.  This means investing to create first class pre-K, elementary and secondary school systems to ensure that our children get the start they need and are prepared for the world they will inherit.  It also means enhancing the single greatest concentration of knowledge workers that we have in rural places — our rural colleges and universities.  And finally it means investments in quality civic leadership and engagement programs.  If those struggling parts of rural Minnesota are going to turn around, it’s the people who live there that will lead the way.  We need to help them take that lead.

Step 5: Bolster our efforts in small business development throughout rural Minnesota.
Small businesses are the cornerstone of our rural economy and we simply need to do more to create more small businesses in rural places.  But equally important, we need to help our already successful small businesses grow into medium-sized businesses.  While I do not want to take anything away from our industrial recruitment activities or our business retention efforts, we need to recognize that we can and should do more in the area of small business development.  To do this we need to significantly strengthen our network of Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs).  Not only are they already in place throughout the state, but their mission is singularly focused on small business.  There simply is no better place to start.

It has always been clear to me that there is no silver bullet that will “fix” the challenges that face rural Minnesota.  But if we can begin to make headway in these five areas, we just might be surprised at how far we can get.

(Dr. Geller is president of the Center for Rural Policy & Development. He can be reached at jgeller@ruralmn.org).