Guest Column: Continuing to remake rural communities

Published 9:30 pm Sunday, October 29, 2017

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Every October we hold what I consider to be Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s “family reunion.” The foundation hosts its annual luncheon, and each year the SMIF family keeps growing. In attendance are the grandparents of SMIF, including some founding and early board members; cousins, such as our sister foundations and other area philanthropies; and a few new kids, such as new loan and grant clients. Add to that our current board members, staff, AmeriCorps LEAP members, city and county reps, elected officials, funders, partners, business leaders and other regional collaborators, and you can easily see how our reunion has grown to include over 250 regional leaders.

Tim Penny

This year marked the one-year anniversary since launching our new SMIF brand: collaborating for regional vitality. Part of the process of collaborating more broadly across our region is making sure we’re reaching even our smallest communities. Communities with under 5,000 residents comprise 46 percent of our region’s population. About 45 percent of SMIF’s investments over the past five years have gone to these smaller communities.

Email newsletter signup

Over the years, we’ve seen these communities innovate and come together to sustain a vibrant way of life, even in the face of a constant narrative of rural decline. Yes, our population is shifting, and our towns look different, but our rural communities have proven that they can still boast a high quality of life.

It takes work, though. New leaders need to step up. More resources need to be corralled. People need to keep giving of their time, talents and money. As Vicky Tribon, one of the founding board members for the Harmony Area Community Foundation, said in an annual report interview, “You have to strive to make your community vibrant; it just doesn’t happen on its own.”

SMIF announced two new programs launched in 2017 to help small town community leaders looking toward the future and looking for some added resources to get them there. The first is our Small Town Grants program. SMIF left the parameters fairly wide on the pilot round, and ended up granting $61,500 to seven communities for collaborative, strategic projects. Watch next year for our second round of small town grants.

The second program is an especially exciting initiative — new to Minnesota, but not to rural America. This program is being undertaken in partnership with the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. The center’s Energizing Entrepreneurs is a provenmodel for economic development. SMIF is bringing this economic model to southern Minnesota by launching its Rural Entrepreneurial Venture program. Five REV communities were announced at the luncheon, all with populations of 5,000 or below. The communities are Blue Earth (Faribault County), Lake City (Wabasha County), Lanesboro and Spring Valley (Fillmore County), Le Sueur (Le Sueur County) and Spring Grove (Houston County).

The keynote at the reunion luncheon was Christopher Ingraham, a reporter for The Washington Post. A couple years ago, after calling Red Lake County “the ugliest place in America” based on USDA natural amenities data, he ended up leaving behind his three hours of East Coast commuting to move to Red Lake Falls. His presentation was a huge hit with the audience and left us inspired about our work to keep our rural communities vibrant and prosperous.

“A Pew Research poll of people living in big cities indicates that 80 percent of them want to live in a small town or rural area,” said Ingraham. “People don’t need to be told why it’s great in these small communities, they need to know that’s it’s possible for them to make the move.”

With the Greater Minnesota way of “getting it done,” I’m confident we can continue to remake our communities, while still retaining many of the things that make them great in the first place.

Here’s to another exciting year ahead. We’ll see you on the road. #smallbutmighty

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.