Guest Column: SMIF stakeholders take regional bus tour

Published 9:07 pm Friday, July 27, 2018

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Tim Penny


An event I look forward to each year is Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s Annual Bus Tour. SMIF staff, board and colleagues spent the day visiting partners who are making a difference in their community. We use this time to hear from stakeholders and listen to community leaders. This is the fourth year of our bus tour and we traveled to the center of our 20-county region — Olmsted, Dodge and Steele counties.

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We listened to concerns and success stories from various guests including city and county staff, economic developers, community foundation members, loan clients and other local leaders. In every community we visited, the concerns shared were housing, workforce and child care. Despite these pressing challenges, I was impressed to hear many people acknowledge that we now live in a “regional economy.” It is clear our partners are embracing that concept and leveraging resources and collaborations in the region in order to grow.

We started the tour by spending an evening at Squash Blossom Farm in Oronoco. This small historic farm is a SMIF loan client, and their motto is “Local Food, Local Art and Local Music.” While we enjoyed their wood-fired pizza, we listened to partners talk about their work. We heard from one of our affiliate funds, the Byron Community Foundation, highlight community projects that enhance the town including a bike path project, early childhood grants and a veteran’s memorial. The Community and Economic Development Associates representative from Stewartville talked about their efforts to cultivate an environment supportive of entrepreneurs. We heard from one of our coaches about our Rural Entrepreneurial Venture program and how entrepreneur networks in southern Minnesota can be a pillar of economic development in rural America.

In Rochester we heard from a representative of Destination Medical Center, which is positioned to be the largest public-private economic development initiative in the state, with 30,000 new jobs anticipated. The downtown area is experiencing vibrancy through a variety of engaging events organized by the Rochester Downtown Alliance. According to surveys from this organization, the majority of people in Rochester are optimistic about the city’s future.

In Hayfield, we had an in-depth conversation with community leaders who are focusing on improvements to residential areas, looking at enhancing trail systems and hoping to open a new child care center. One thing that seems to be echoed by community leaders across the region is that small town assets are changing — one doesn’t necessarily need to look for a bustling downtown to know if a community is thriving. Good schools, infrastructure and broadband access can attract new residents and different types of businesses.

I am always impressed by the innovative spirit of our region. In Blooming Prairie we visited loan client, BioPlastic Solutions. They develop custom alternatives to PVC and have made a big push to create products that are biodegradable. They have experienced major growth over the past seven years and are still growing. In West Concord we visited another loan client, Clean Plus, which has developed Drip Trap Granules, a corn-based absorbent designed to clean up oil spills, in addition to many other ground-breaking products.

We heard from community leaders in Steele County, where people are excited about the upcoming development in downtown Owatonna, and the growth in new apartment complexes. One of the ways they are addressing the workforce challenge is by working directly with high school students to support them in finding work in Steele County. Medford, one of our newest community growth initiatives, talked about their experience identifying their assets and working towards common goals.

We ended the day by enjoying ice cream at the Chocolate Shoppe in Mantorville, and touring the historic opera house, which continues to host traditional melodramas and other plays throughout the year.

The bus tour always reminds me that we are not isolated in this region — we know that in order to grow, we have to grow together.

Next year we look forward to touring Mower, Fillmore and Houston counties. 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.