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Look to 1987 for inspiration in guiding a 'One Minnesota' policy framework

State Sen. Matt Schmit
Matt Schmit

This time of year – and this year in particular – Minnesotans can get nostalgic. After all, longing for a bygone era in tumultuous times is comforting. Our divided politics and culture aside, we’ve been reminded for months now that 30 years ago the 1987 Minnesota Twins brought home our state’s first World Series championship. And in September we marked the 30-year grand opening anniversary of Prince’s Paisley Park.

While sports and music can bring us together and add value to our lives in immeasurable ways, 1987 and its 30-year mark provides another important milestone for Minnesota: perhaps the state’s last best effort toward bridging geographic gaps in socioeconomic opportunity and outcomes.

The 1987 legislative session convened with a keen understanding of persistent and problematic struggle throughout many Minnesota communities. In particular, dramatic changes in farming, manufacturing, and mining meant that economic prosperity wasn’t shared as widely as before, despite gains in productivity. More and more Minnesotans were feeling left out due to changing economic tides. Sound familiar?

The Rural Development Act

That year, Senate File 1 – The Rural Development Act – proposed significant new investment to spur on economic growth and opportunity in distressed areas that were damaged by recession and private-sector dislocation. Among the outcomes of that legislation, advanced by Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and Gov. Rudy Perpich:

As the forerunner to Enterprise Minnesota, a consulting organization helping Minnesota manufacturers become operationally efficient and profitable, the Greater Minnesota Corporation (GMC) represented a novel effort toward cross-sector collaboration among university, private enterprise, and others through investment in applied research and product development across Minnesota.

The GMC set out with three primary goals in mind: 1) to create economic development in Minnesota, focusing on all areas of need in the state, including the inner cities; 2) to involve higher education in economic development by providing better linkage between universities and business; and 3) to achieve rural revitalization.

Many successful aspects of the GMC and the Rural Development Act eventually were incorporated into the work of state agencies, including our current Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Other aspects of the original legislation are still with us today, and the following entities were either created, strengthened, or inspired in part by the legislative efforts of 1987:

  • The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) — helping Minnesota farmers and ag producers leverage their commodities and byproducts through new markets for bio-based products, renewable energy, co-products, and food;
  • The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) — promoting regional economic growth through targeted investment and local priority-setting since 1941, the state agency was given expanded tools in 1987;
  • The Minnesota Public Facilities Authority — coordinating with other state agencies to provide grants and loans for essential infrastructure, such as sewer and water systems, across the state;
  • The Rural Development Board, created to investigate and evaluate new methods to enhance rural development through private enterprise and coordination with state agency, preceded establishment of Minnesota Rural Partners and the Center for Rural Policy and Development; and
  • State support for a new philanthropically driven approach to regional community and economic development, known as the Minnesota Initiative Foundations.

Of special note, 1987 marked the first full year of the newly created Minnesota Initiative Foundations (MIFs) – a collection of six independent entities funded by The McKnight Foundation to provide business loans, advance regional policies and priorities, and drive partnership on statewide initiatives.

Entering 2017, the “MIFs” have been active and effective, awarding “nearly 32,000 grants in Greater Minnesota, leveraging nearly $190 million for everything from innovations in early childhood education, to building the capacity of regional nonprofits, to coordinating disaster relief for small towns devastated by tornados and floods. … Forged in crisis 30 years ago, the Minnesota Initiative Foundations have become a model for rural philanthropy, economic development and forward thinking.”

An 'Urban Initiatives' toolkit

Importantly, while originally intended to serve just rural Minnesota, The Rural Development Act also included tools for community and economic development in pockets of urban struggle. Metro areas were eligible to leverage challenge grants and small business loans as part of the legislation’s “Urban Initiatives” toolkit.

Whether serving the urban core or rural reaches, through state agency, philanthropy, or public-private partnership, a critical component of the 1987 approach involved the idea of statewide “One Minnesota” capacity building – for local communities, organizations, and collaborations to better understand problems, pursue solutions, and make meaningful change.

As a modern example of model capacity building, consider the decade-plus investment the Blandin Foundation has made through its Broadband Communities Program. Since 2003, over 70 communities and 110 organizations have benefited from focused work establishing local technology goals, measuring broadband access and use, and leveraging technical assistance and resources to drive progress.

Without this planning, preparation, and investment in local capacity, Minnesota’s nation-leading Border-to-Border Broadband competitive grant fund – which was established in 2014 and has since extended the reach of high-speed internet access to approximately 30,000 hard-to-reach homes and businesses – never could have inspired the 150-plus applications the program received through its first three competitive rounds or the high quality of its nearly 75 funded proposals.

Local-state partnership for real results

Imagine how similarly targeted investment in capacity building around such pressing challenges as early education, child care, sewer and water infrastructure, housing, and transportation mobility could help communities better plan, prepare, and problem-solve – especially if the state were to reward such local focus and intentionality with significant and sustained resources. This is the kind of local-state partnership that can drive real results. But it all begins with a combination of capacity building and investment – an effective formula that’s more exception than rule these days.

As we Minnesotans ponder our next 30 years together, 1987 may offer some lessons – and inspiration – around key questions confronting us today: Can persistent problems, socioeconomic struggle, and overarching structural obstacles be overcome without truly innovative thinking and bold solutions? How do we best tap and align our current strengths to promote efficient and effective cross-sector collaboration? Where ought we focus our energies in the pursuit of equitable outcomes?

While Minnesota faces pronounced but nonetheless familiar geographic differences in culture, politics, and socioeconomic conditions – as well as mounting challenges in access and affordability for such essentials as health care, college and career advancement, broadband utilization, child care and early learning, and workforce and affordable housing — we all have a part to play in promoting constructive dialogue and actionable solutions.

As we embark upon a critical year ahead, in which candidates for governor and Legislature will share their respective ideas for guiding Minnesota’s future, here’s hoping history will inspire a redoubled effort toward investment in a vision for One Minnesota built to succeed for the next 30 years – and beyond.

Matt Schmit is the policy & projects director for Growth & Justice, a policy research and advocacy organization focused on building a more inclusive prosperity for Minnesota.

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