Making progress: Luverne's economic development efforts highlighted during lieutenant governor visit
LUVERNE -- After taking part in the first leg of the Prairie Pedal bike ride out of Luverne Wednesday morning, Minnesota's Lt. Gov. Tina Smith returned to the community for an afternoon visit with local leaders to talk economic development and co...
LUVERNE - After taking part in the first leg of the Prairie Pedal bike ride out of Luverne Wednesday morning, Minnesota’s Lt. Gov. Tina Smith returned to the community for an afternoon visit with local leaders to talk economic development and community revitalization.
Nearly eight months in office, this marked Smith’s second visit to Luverne in an official capacity. Her first visit, in March, was to celebrate the community’s selection for a $5 million grant from Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development to expand broadband across Rock County.
On Wednesday, Smith wanted an update on the progress toward expanding broadband across the county, but also to learn the secret to Luverne’s success in attracting new businesses and sprucing up its downtown.
To answer the latter question, Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian shared how a groundswell of nearly 200 local residents came together a few years ago to talk about a long-term plan for the city.
“Out of that came Luverne Initiatives For Tomorrow (LIFT),” Baustian shared, adding that the goal is to take ideas from the community, get direction and try to make Luverne a destination city. As a 501(c)3, he said LIFT allows them to do things the city cannot.
Through LIFT, the community has developed new branding through its “Love the Life” campaign and pooled $5.5 million in investment dollars into new businesses, including a GrandStay Hotel & Suites, Take 16 Brewery, Sterling’s Cafe and the Warehouse. Meanwhile, the Luverne Economic Development Authority continues to offer grants and low-interest loans through a downtown revitalization project and is working with a state grant to develop a six-mile Luverne Loop bicycle and walking trail.
“You need to have the buy-in from the community,” said District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, who assisted in the development of LIFT.
Once that was in place, the city council could take the next step.
Luverne Economic Development Authority Director Holly Sammons said once the discussions began and the ideas flowed, LEDA developed a strategic vision for the community that included plans for outdoor recreation and moving toward a historic main street look.
“This town has a unique pride about it,” said LIFT member Greg Berger. “They want the appearance to be impressive, they want it to be progressive. We were becoming a bedroom community, and that’s not what the people in this community wanted.”
Luverne City Council member Esther Frakes said that while the public meetings asked for input on what amenities people wanted in Luverne, there were also requests for volunteers to serve on committees and see the ideas through to completion.
“People have been willing to donate so much time and so many finances,” she said.
There are numerous examples in Luverne of people stepping forward to donate to a project. Among them are the Luverne Hockey Arena, the local hospital and, most recently, the $1 million fundraising campaign to relocate the Rock County Historical Society.
Despite all of the success stories, there have been some challenges as well.
Weber said the state’s tax policies force retired people out of Luverne and across state lines, and that hurts communities like Luverne, bordered by South Dakota to the west and Iowa to the south.
“It’s really important for us to keep those people here,” he said. “When we force these people out of our community, we change the fabric of our community.”
Prevailing wage issues have also caused problems in the community, and are of particular concern as they await bids for expanding broadband.
“That issue, out here in rural Minnesota, can really put the kibosh on a project,” said Frakes.
Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre said they are bound by the prevailing wage rules that come out of the Twin Cities. He’d like to see barriers broken so that the wages could be based off larger cities in the region, like Sioux Falls, S.D.
He said there is a real fear that the prevailing wage (Davis-Bacon) law may force a change in the scope of the broadband project.
“Dollars from the state aren’t going to go as far because of the rule,” he said. “Our goal, and I think the state’s goal when awarding the grant, was to get 100 percent coverage in Rock County.”
Now, he’s not sure 100 percent broadband coverage is attainable with the funds they have - if they have to meet the Davis-Bacon law.
A shortage of contractors has also caused some issues. Baustian said many times the city is lucky to get two bids on a project because all the contractors are so busy. Then, some aren’t interested in bidding if the job requires prevailing wages be paid.
“If you look around the community, we don’t even have a lot of new construction going up,” said Weber. “We should have a dozen homes built right now, but I don’t know who would build them.”
In closing, Baustian invited Smith back to Luverne in another year or two to view the progress in the community.
Smith said she is focused on Minnesota’s economy and how it works for everyone in the state. Her priorities include broadband and transportation.