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Guest Column: Supporting the area’s smallest communities

Guest Column by Tim Penny

 

Central to Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s current strategic plan is a strengthened commitment to look ahead at the future of rural Minnesota. While we continue to make our programming and resources accessible to communities of all sizes in our 20-county region, we know that many of our smaller towns lack sufficient financial resources to help them grow and address challenges. Two ways we have enhanced our investments in small towns is through our Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program and our Small Town Grant program.

The Rural Entrepreneurial Venture program started as a pilot here at SMIF, and is supported by Blandin Foundation, with the goal of helping small towns develop new approaches for long-term economic growth. The REV model is based on the e2 Entrepreneurial Ecosystems framework from NetWork Kansas, which provides guidance to communities for accelerating entrepreneurial activity. The framework, which has been utilized by communities across the country, provides a roadmap for sustainable entrepreneur-focused development.

In 2018, six small towns with populations under 5,000 were chosen to participate in REV after a competitive application process: Blue Earth, Lake City, Lanesboro, Le Sueur, Spring Grove and Spring Valley. Coaches from SMIF, Region Nine Development Commission and University of Minnesota Extension have been working with each of these communities for a three-year period. Together we have provided tools and guidance to each community as they determine what REV looks like for them. In Blue Earth, they have focused on efforts to retain youth in the community after graduation. In Spring Grove they are working toward starting a Chamber of Commerce. In Spring Valley they are developing a tourism campaign to attract more visitors. All REV communities have been able to build more energy around supporting entrepreneurs.

Our Small Town Grant program has also made a significant impact in communities across the region. In St. James, volunteers formed a group called Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas which plans programs and events to bring people together to create a welcoming environment. La Crescent underwent a branding and marketing planning process to enhance the town’s image. The city of Preston focused its grant on creating resources to showcase current and future affordable workforce housing initiatives.

This year, our Small Town Grant program will be focused on helping towns respond and recover from the hardships created by the current health and economic crisis. We know that the needs will look different in each town. We will be prioritizing funding for projects that address a community issue that was created by COVID-19 and supports vulnerable community members. Additionally, we will prioritize projects that address economic gaps, educational gaps or racial inequities that were manifested or made worse by the current crisis.

We are currently seeking applications for both of these SMIF programs. Three small towns with populations of 5,000 or less will be accepted into the second cohort of REV communities. Applications are due Sept. 1. The Small Town Grant applications are open to communities under 10,000 and are due on July 30. Details about both programs can be found on our website at smifoundation.org.

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

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.