What are Southern Minnesota’s Brightest Economic Opportunities?

Brad Finstad

The Center for Rural Policy and Development is pleased to be serving as coordinator of the Southern Minnesota Regional Competitiveness Project, a partnership of businesses, non-profit organizations and government agencies working together to create a strategic economic development plan for Southern Minnesota.

While Southern Minnesota continues to be a vibrant region, we must plan for our future by identifying the industries that hold the greatest promise.

A recent study commissioned by the Southern Minnesota Regional Competitiveness Project did just that. Conducted by the University of Missouri’s Center for Regional Competitiveness, the study identified six strategic opportunities key to our region’s future.

Manufacturing: One in five Southern Minnesota workers are employed by manufacturing firms, a much higher proportion than in the nation as a whole. These manufacturing firms represent everything from office furniture and boat manufacturers to breweries and distilleries. Global competition is applying tremendous pressure to certain manufacturing segments, so it is critical that we focus intently on industries that are growing and can help raise the income bar in Southern Minnesota.

Food and Agriculture: Southern Minnesota is an agricultural powerhouse, producing a dominant share of the state’s corn, soybean, turkey, sugar beet, swine and dairy output. This sector of our regional economy will likely remain strong moving forward, but we must keep a close eye on the ongoing impact of farm consolidation. Additionally, to raise wages in the packaged food sector, we should consider developing a regional “brand” for our products to command value in the marketplace and attract tourists (similar to what Napa Valley has done with wine).

Health Care: Nearly 100,000 workers in Southern Minnesota are employed in the health care sector, almost 30,000 more than would be the case if our regional economy looked just like the nation. Beyond its size, health care is also a source of great pride in our region, with Mayo Clinic at the forefront. Moving forward, we need to develop strategies to capture more economic benefit from our high quality health care. One option is to better tap into the growing demand for elder care, attracting not only aging Southern Minnesotans to our elder care facilities but people from beyond our region as well.

Renewable Energy: Southern Minnesota has a clear footprint in renewable energy. We have 16 corn ethanol plants in our region and wind turbines are multiplying across the prairie, especially in the western reaches of the region. Cellulosic ethanol and our region’s industry knowledge could open us up to new opportunities even as corn ethanol’s future becomes less certain. Additionally, Minnesota’s law requiring 25 percent of our state’s energy to be generated through renewable resources by 2025 holds great opportunity for wind generation in the region. With transmission capacity key to this opportunity, we must organize and speak with one voice to be able to influence the location of and access to new transmission lines.

Bioscience: Southern Minnesota is just beginning to tap its incredible potential in bioscience. We have all the assets needed to power future growth: World class medical research, deep expertise in life sciences and an agricultural powerhouse. The real challenge is connecting these assets in creative ways to capture explosive growth in new markets for bioscience products. No other region has mastered the synergies required to do this, but perhaps no other region is better positioned to do so than Southern Minnesota.

High Technology: Southern Minnesota has a major presence in high technology, with nearly 38,000 jobs in this sector. Specifically, our region has a strong cluster of information technology businesses, many involved in the manufacture of precision products. The challenge is that jobs in this sector are declining throughout the nation, though at a somewhat slower rate in our region. To protect this sector and fuel growth, we must ensure that all potential synergies between high technology companies, research organizations and higher education institutions are being fully exploited.

Southern Minnesota has an abundance of distinctive assets on which our already vibrant economy is built. We can do better, though, and that’s exactly what the Southern Minnesota Regional Competitiveness Project has been formed to do.

(Brad Finstad is executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development. He can be reached at bfinstad@ruralmn.org.)