Column: Greater Minnesota needs to speak up
By DAN DORMAN
ALBERT LEA — Before I was a legislator and economic development director for the city of Albert Lea, I sold tires. And, let me tell you, if there’s even a tiny hole anywhere in a tire, the whole thing slowly goes flat. That’s the same lesson I hope to spread in my new position as the executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership: the state can’t keep rolling if we’ve got a leak and in some cases a flat tire.
Greater Minnesota is strong. More than 45 percent of the state’s labor force is located in Greater Minnesota. Distinctly “rural” industries such as logging, mining and agriculture remain integral to the state’s economy. Businesses like Hormel in Austin, Schwan’s in Marshall, Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls and Marvin Windows in Warroad bring in millions of dollars to the state each year, not to mention thousands of jobs.
Yet despite the amount of money its businesses bring in and the number of jobs it provides, Greater Minnesota has sorely lacked an organized, unified voice aimed at getting its needs met. Until now, that is. The Greater Minnesota Economic Development Partnership — a new public-private partnership made up of businesses, cities, chambers of commerce, economic development authorities and nonprofits — is that voice for rural Minnesota.
In order to develop a strong economy state-wide, Minnesota needs an organization like the Partnership to speak out about the needs of Greater Minnesota. The metro area already has a 20-year vision for economic growth that includes increased investment in high-tech industries and a multi-billion-dollar light rail system. Greater Minnesota, however, currently lacks such vision and planning. The metro area isn’t going to solve Greater Minnesota’s problems for us. It’s time for communities and businesses in Greater Minnesota to join together to define problems and develop our own solutions to concerns such as infrastructure, tax policy and business growth. Greater Minnesota business is doing well, but it can do even better with stronger state policies and more resources. An organization like the Partnership is needed to advance the economic development goals of Greater Minnesota and, in turn, the entire state.
I decided to take on the challenge of leading the Partnership because I know how great Minnesota is and how much better it can be. As the owner of a small business in Albert Lea, I have lost customers and business to businesses located in Iowa because of Minnesota state policies that are not as competitive as those in Iowa. As an EDA director, I too often saw my community miss out on new business opportunities because other states offer better incentives. And while I wanted every new job in our area, if not Albert Lea, I wanted them in Minnesota. As a legislator, I witnessed great ideas get squashed because they didn’t have a strong enough support group behind them. In other words, I’ve been there, and I’m tired of watching great opportunities slip away.
Why do we need the Partnership? Don’t we already have economic development groups that advocate for the same goals? Well, not exactly. While rural and urban areas should be on the same team when it comes to the state’s economic growth, the needs of Greater Minnesota differ greatly from those of the metro and often are subservient to powerful metro interests. If we don’t begin to address economic growth in Greater Minnesota, we’ll all be in trouble.
For example, a 2012 study by the Federal Communications Commission found that nearly 24 percent of rural residents in the United States lack broadband access. As companies become increasingly global, access to something as basic as consistent Internet and cell phone service is a crucial issue facing rural Minnesota. Not only is it difficult to conduct business without adequate technology, but young, talented workers increasingly won’t move to a place where they can’t even access YouTube.
The Partnership is designed to remind legislators and other decision-makers that Greater Minnesota remains vital to the state’s economy. The state should continue to capitalize on the strengths of Greater Minnesota, but it also must address some bumps in the road. After all, a strong Greater Minnesota and metro area will ensure that we keep Minnesota rolling.
Dan Dorman is the executive director of the Greater Minnesota Economic Development Partnership, a small business owner and a former Republican State Representative from Albert Lea.