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Reaching sustainability in Minnesota, one city at a time

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. GreenStep Cities coordinator Philipp Muessig and advocates show cities the way.

The historic downtown area of Granite Falls.

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose. In this series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — The K.K. Berge Building, a two-story brownstone throwback that barely survived demolition after one of the many Minnesota River floods here, sits among a row of shops and businesses downtown.

The renovated 1924 structure – its brick facing and high ceilings intact – houses the Chamber of Commerce and an office for an environmental group, displays local artwork and historical artifacts, and hosts public gatherings for residents who can peer out at the fullness of the river. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent in the basement.

In other words, it’s an appropriate setting for a dozen residents who have gathered on a hot June afternoon to consider the merits of GreenStep Cities, a sustainability project designed to help cities across the state conserve energy, promote healthy living and preserve the local character and natural environment that can separate one town from the next.

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Jeff Vetsch, a coordinator for a nonprofit organization called CERT, an acronym for Clean Energy Resource Teams, gathers the group into a circle of chairs in the gallery, amid paintings of farmhouses and photos of horses. He explains the program in broad brush strokes, telling the group how GreenStep Cities can give this town of 2,900 people access to a wealth of knowledge and resources that can help it achieve its sustainability goals.

“It’s really a framework for developing initiatives for your city,” he tells the group, later adding, “a lot of it is about getting the policy in place so you can take advantage of it when the time arrives.”

Spreading the sustainability message

Philipp Muessig helped to develop the GreenStep Cities initiative and coordinates the program for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). While Muessig, himself, has met with several local boards and agencies in spreading the GreenStep message, two of his more active coordinators work for CERT: Vetsch and Diana McKeown, the director of CERT in the Twin Cities.

Vetsch works out of his home in New London, a town of 1,200 people in Kandiyohi County, while McKeown is based at a CERT office at Eureka Recycling in northeast Minneapolis. The three have given dozens of presentations on GreenStep Cities, with Vetsch reaching out to rural cities in west-central Minnesota, McKeown the Twin Cities suburbs and Muessig some of both.

Jeff Vetsch
MinnPost photo by Gregg AamotJeff Vetsch, center, speaking to a group of Granite Falls residents.

They have signed up a wide swath of the state’s mid-sized cities and small towns. Rochester, in southeastern Olmsted County, is the largest city in the program with a population of 105,000, while Milan, a village of 370 in western Minnesota’s Chippewa County, is the smallest. Suburban cities in the program include Edina, St. Louis Park and Burnsville. (Minneapolis and St. Paul have their own sustainability programs and are not part of GreenStep Cities).

Cities that join are linked to a GreenStep program coordinator and a network of professionals that include green building experts, traffic lighting engineers, storm water specialists, conservation managers and small business developers.

In Granite Falls, Vetsch, sitting cross-legged and dressed in blue polo and khakis, discusses the program for about 15 minutes, providing an overview without delving into details. There is no discussion of LED lighting. No PowerPoint charts about the cost of insulating old buildings. No maps of projected walking trails. Just a summary that speaks to the broad makeup of the group, which includes maintenance workers at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, the director of a local economic development agency, an arts curator and a representative for the Upper Sioux Indian Reservation.

Raising one hand slowly from chest height to above his head, Vetsch says: “I like to keep these presentations at 30,000 feet.”

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Bringing passion to their work

Muessig is a California transplant who made Minnesota his home after entering Carlton College in Northfield in 1972. He had been working on environmental issues for years – once working in the food co-op movement in Minneapolis – and had come to recognize the slow pace of change that often accompanies environmental work.

He had even been looking around for other work when the idea for GreenStep began to come together.

“This was precisely what I wanted to do,” Muessig said. Asked why, he said:  “I suppose the measurability and reportability of the program is probably its strongest feature. The fact that we are able to see which cities are doing what – that beats putting on a conference or a training session or sending out newsletters.”

Muessig found able deputies in coordinators such as Vetsch and McKeown, essentially independent contractors for the MPCA who are involved with an array of sustainability activities across the state. Before visiting a community on behalf of GreenStep Cities, each does a bit of homework, learning about the community’s leaders, its specific sustainability needs, its character and history.

McKeown describes her interaction with local groups as low-pressure affairs built more on forging relationships than giving directives. Her job, she said, is to provide options, answers questions and get feedback from local leaders in a sometimes slow process that has nonetheless proven to be effective.

Vetsch, for his part, has found his visits with rural cities so rewarding that he is studying for a master’s degree in community development to go along with his undergraduate work in environmental studies. “In some ways the most valuable part of the program is the community involvement,’’ he said. “It drives more change. It’s about relationship building, to some extent.”

He added: “You know, I came at this from an environmental background, but I’m finding that I am learning a lot about how everything is intertwined. People relate to the program through different messaging.”

Responding to ’25/25′ initiative

The roots of GreenStep Cities can be traced to a groundbreaking renewable energy standard passed by the Legislature in 2007 that calls for Minnesota to produce 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025 while also reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent.

Better known as the “25/25” plan, the standard sent local governments scrambling to figure out ways to help the state meet the mandate. In 2008, after CERT teams had met with several communities to discuss “25/25,” the Legislature asked the MPCA, CERT and a wing of the Department of Commerce to develop guidelines that cities could follow in ramping up their sustainability efforts.

The MPCA, the state’s top environmental regulatory agency, facilitates GreenStep Cities with the help of the Commerce Department’s energy division and five non-profit partner organizations: CERT; the Great Plains Institute; the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota; the Izaak Walton League; and the League of Minnesota Cities.

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The program – a “three-legged stool” of efficiency, livability and environmental sustainability, as Vetsch puts it – involves 28 “best practices” that fall under five categories: buildings and lighting; land use; transportation; environmental management; and economic and community development. “Best practices” include such initiatives as improving the efficiency of street lighting and traffic signals; increasing plant and tree cover; and strengthening local food production and access.

Examples of actual achievements range from the significant to the somewhat symbolic. St. Cloud, for instance, has cut its fuel costs by using recycled vegetable oil to power one of its public buses. Mankato is using treated wastewater to cool the Mankato Energy Center, and Elk River has retrofitted the lighting and heating system at its public ice arenas. In Hoffman, meanwhile, the local Lions Club gave every resident a tree to plant.

Cities that have signed up, along with the goals they have reached, are also listed on the program’s website for other communities to review.

Overcoming skepticism

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for GreenStep is the concern that the program attempts to force cities to do things – costly things – they don’t want to do, a common drawback for advocates of environmental stewardship, especially in an era rife with debate over climate change.

McKeown recalled how the city of Rogers, a suburb on the northwest edge of the Twin Cities, crossed out references to “climate change” in its formal resolution adopting the GreenStep program.

“That’s fine! It doesn’t matter to us why they do it. Each community has different needs,” she said. “This isn’t just about the environment or climate change. For some cities it’s about assistance or best practices for planning and land use – things they are already doing.”

K.K. Berge storefront
MinnPost photo by Gregg AamotThe K.K. Berge building was salvaged after Minnesota River flooding and now houses the Chamber of Commerce and a public meeting space/gallery that showcases the work of local artists.

Muessig notes that the program is voluntary and that cities can drop out whenever they like. He also said that helping cities become more attractive for businesses is one of the central tenets behind the campaign. “We felt like we needed to develop a broad base program, but one focused on the environment,” he said.

He added: “Cities want investments that return benefits. For GreenStep cities, we really focus on and point out where the financial benefits are. But, yes, environmental is the biggest piece – the heart of it is environmental improvement.”

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Finding local champions

Muessig described the management approach of GreenStep Cities as “both top down and bottom up.”

“It needs both, so we formally only sort of admit cities whose council has signed a resolution of commitment,” he said. “You’ve got to have top management in the organization, but we clearly are finding there needs to be a motivated citizen or commission or task force or business group or school group that does some of the leg work in the community.”

As Vetsch put it: “You need to find community champions to get it done. We are looking for people in the community to drive the bus.”

Bus drivers like Andrew Bjur.

Bjur is an architect and sustainability enthusiast in Willmar, a city of 20,000 residents in Kandiyohi County that is working on plans to redesign its downtown core. The area that once housed much of the city’s retail outlets is now more of a center for accountants, lawyers and other professionals, as well as rental units for Somali refugees.

With an assist from GreenStep Cities, plans call for connecting walking and biking trails with the downtown; upgrading older buildings and lighting; and attracting a locally owned grocery store. It’s an ambitious list, Bjur admits.

“Change is always going to be slow,” he said. “We are a heavier society and are thinking more about that and how to manage our own health better. And people are more and more concerned about where their food is coming from. I guess it’s really about laying the ground work for becoming a healthier city.”

Muessig, who has spent part of the summer visiting towns like Mountain Lake in southern Minnesota, Grand Rapids near the Iron Range and Lake Elmo near the Twin Cities, said the program is beginning to generate buzz on its own. Once about 15 percent of the state’s 855 cities — roughly 130 — jump on board, the program should be able to grow on its own, he said. That probably means another year’s worth of community presentations for Muessig and his team.

“It’s very heartening and shows the power of an idea whose time is coming, though not without resistance,” he said. “When you say ‘green,’ most people think it’s about saving the earth from humans, but it’s really about fitting human systems into natural systems.”

More than one Lanesboro?

At the meeting in Granite Falls, Vetsch notes that a lot of small cities want to become “the next Lanesboro” — destination cities like the tiny tourist attraction tucked amid the southeastern Minnesota bluffs. (He jokes: “Of course, New London is already the next Lanesboro; that’s why I live there!”)

Perhaps the beautiful river setting, renovated buildings and water recreation will lead Granite Falls to one day become a town of tourists, hotels and craft shops. But, should the city decide to engage with GreenStep, it will initially have a more modest, but no less important, goal: stronger environmental stewardship and a heightened living experience for its own residents.

“It’s possible to do, but it’s going to take some structure from the city. And there are going to be questions about what it means and what needs to be done,” says Dennis Van Hoof, the director of the Granite Falls Economic Development Authority. “We need to create an atmosphere here to do these things.”

The meeting also drew Granite Falls resident Sarina Otaibi, a 26-year-old who works for a regional conservation group called Clean Up the River Environment, or CURE, which focuses on protection of the Minnesota River watershed.

“I want this to be a place that I want to live in,” says Otaibi, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain before graduating from Granite Falls High School. (Otaibi’s mother, a Granite Falls native, met her father, a Saudi, when he was studying at Ridgewater College in Willmar). Asked what her ideal place would have, she rattles off a list of things: a lively downtown, walkability to stores and restaurants, more promotion of the river as a community focal point, and sustainable living. Otaibi is currently renovating an old church that will be her home.

“Sustainability is a big thing among young people. Its time has come,” she says. “I just think this might help to attract a younger generation.” 

More meetings and discussions will need to take place before Granite Falls decides whether to become the latest city to join forces with GreenStep Cities. For Vetsch, it’s a start.

“When I leave these events I feel energized,” he said, walking out of the K.K. Berge Building and back into the summer heat. “This is the part of the job that does that.”