WORTHINGTON — Worrying about Greater Minnesota and rural America has become one of the hottest trends in the media and in public policy circles, and as usual with such things, the upsides tend to get buried in the crisis tableau.
Valid reasons for concern abound: stagnant incomes, low postsecondary completion rates, an aging and thinning population, skilled workforce shortages, increases in mortality rates, all culminating in a 2016 election result that both parties need to recognize as a cry from the heart of rural America.
Our own Minnesota Rural Equity Project at Growth & Justice was launched earlier this year to move beyond the worrying and help create a more constructive public policy response to these conditions. And as we will repeatedly emphasize in coming research and communication, in MinnPost and elsewhere, an unrelieved narrative of decline and despair is both false and counterproductive.
Signs of re-invention, self-reliance, resilience and vitality abound. A recent case in point is the 13th Annual Worthington Bio conference, sponsored by the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp (WREDC) and showcasing best examples of innovation and opportunity for bioscience and agriculture-related growth in southwestern Minnesota. Two days of listening revealed at least five takeaways that provide light and hope for southwestern Minnesota.
Innovative technology coming on
The main theme of the conference was innovation, featuring presentations by entrepreneurs and business executives outlining ambitious plans for expanding enterprises in the Upper Midwest or southwestern Minnesota, based on new and emerging technologies.
Here are three that stood out: Micronutrient Technologies Inc., based in Mankato, has patents pending for bottled drinking water products with micronutrients and vitamins, to meet an exploding demand from health-conscious consumers; Energy Organic Systems Inc. is planning a new plant in Willmar that pioneers a new method of super-efficient “anaerobic digestion” that converts agriculture wastes into energy, organic fertilizer, and water; and Acceligen, a division of the Minnessota-based firm Recombinetics, promoted breakthroughs in “genome editing’’ (not the same as GMOs or genetically modified organisms) that show great promise in improving animal and plant reproduction.
Workforce training improving
Many actors in higher education are at work continuously improving our rural workforce, creating faster and improved pathways to skills and credentials, and several were on stage at the conference. One standout initiative in particular, “Get Into Energy,” recognizes that the next big wave of economic growth for rural Minnesota likely will be in the area of renewable energy, wind and solar in particular. Moreover, thousands of opportunities and jobs will be opening up in the conventional energy sector, due to a coming wave of retirements.
Equipped with a large trailer full of instructional equipment, including interactive gizmos showing how solar and wind power technology works, a team representing 10 Minnesota State colleges and universities is touring the state and providing state-of-the-art instructional materials to high school teachers. Extra effort to attract and recruit young Minnesotans into energy careers will disproportionately benefit Greater Minnesota, where most of the renewable and conventional energy is located.
Dakotas and Canada collaborating
Economic development experts tend to agree that too much effort over too many years has been placed on states “raiding” each other, or trying to grow by luring companies across borders with tax giveaways and special subsidies, with no real net benefit to the Upper Midwest region as a whole.
That kind of harmful competition probably won’t end completely, but two presentations at the BIO conference suggested a new era of cooperation may be underway. The “Protein Highway Initiative,’’ involving Upper Midwestern states and Canada’s prairie provinces, is a new undertaking that aims to take greater cooperative advantage of a vast region that includes the most prolific producers of edible protein in the world. Goals include creation of an innovation hub to spur collaboration through the region, attraction of regional entrepreneurs and support for company scale-ups. Representatives from South Dakota economic development agencies expressed envy and admiration for Minnesota’s track record in fostering growth and healthy companies. “We have to work together,’’ said Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Bio.
Broadband expanding, at last
A prominent exhibitor at the conference was MVTV Wireless, a nonprofit, member-owned corporation, which in recent years has expanded its Wireless Broadband Internet Services to include more than 30,000 square miles of Southwestern Minnesota.
The enterprise now serves more than 6,000 businesses and homes and is growing rapidly, thanks to the support of both the Blandin Foundation and a major infusion of state funding in recent years.
DEED’s doing good deeds
Not since the farm crisis of the 1980s has Minnesota’s state government been so involved in so many ways in assisting businesses and entrepreneurs survive and thrive in rural Minnesota, and the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is at the forefront.
In a presentation entitled “Financing Firms: From Garages to Clean Rooms,” Bob Isaacson, executive director of DEED’s Office of Business Finance, reviewed success stories from the most frequently used state programs for job creation in Greater Minnesota, including “angel’’ tax credits and funds for start-ups, as well as various state aids for expanding businesses.
Of particular note was the new Emerging Entrepreneur Loan Fund, targeted to businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, low-income individuals and persons with disabilities. That’s a significant new source of help for communities like Nobles County, which over the last two decades has become one of the most racially diverse counties in the state, home to one of the highest percentages of immigrants.
One of those immigrants is Abraham Algadi, a Middle Easterner from Jordan, who serves as executive director of the WREDC, sponsor of the conference, and Algadi in general plays the role of ebullient cheerleader for the region, and especially its potential for brain-powered innovation.
“What we’re seeing is a natural evolution and progression of rural economies nationwide toward the knowledge-based economy,’’ Algadi said. “There is lot more room in this region’s economy for niche innovations, in agriculture, bioscience and animal health. Nobody knows where the next breakthrough will come from, but we are going to encourage it and be ready to take advantage of it.’’
Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a policy research group that advocates for more equitable economic growth in Minnesota.
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