Guest Column: Economic development opportunities for entrepreneurs and communities

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 24, 2021

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Guest Column by Tim Penny

At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, one of the three program areas we focus on is economic development. Since our founding in 1986, we have worked to catalyze entrepreneurial activity in our 20-county region by providing early-stage investments, traditional loans, microloans, technical assistance and mentoring of entrepreneurs. Each year SMIF invests around $2.1 million in economic development initiatives.

Tim Penny

The U.S. Small Business Administration recently celebrated National Small Business Week, which recognizes the critical contributions of America’s entrepreneurs and small business owners. According to SBA, more than half of Americans either own or work for a small business, and they create nearly two out of every three new jobs in the U.S. each year. This is one of the reasons SMIF has been involved in lending for the past 35 years. SMIF has supported more than 560 businesses through 741 loans, investing $33.4 million in the region through lending.

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Just within the past few months, SMIF’s lending staff closed Small Enterprise Loans, in partnership with SBA, to the following small businesses: Blair Construction Cleaner in Rochester, CannonBelles Cheese in Cannon Falls, Curly Girlz Candy in Owatonna, Merge food truck in Rochester and Wingham Trucking LLC in Albert Lea. Of course, we also know that larger businesses are critical to our economy, which is why we offer business loans that support manufacturing, technology, health care and other key industries. Most recently we closed a business loan to Bio-Plastic Solutions in Ellendale. For information about SMIF’s business financing opportunities, visit

There are other ways beyond direct lending that support entrepreneurship and economic development in our region. We also create opportunities for communities and organizations to grow their local economies through grantmaking. SMIF’s Economic Development Grant program aims to fund projects up to $20,000 that enable communities to create more prosperous local economies. This grant is an excellent opportunity for cities, counties, economic development authorities, other public institutions and nonprofit organizations to grow economic development in their communities. We are currently seeking applications for this grant, which is due Oct. 26. Visit our website at or contact Jennifer Heien, grants coordinator, at 507-214-7040 or

Another way SMIF supports economic growth and prosperity is through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. VISTA is one of the oldest national service arms of AmeriCorps. Members serve full time for a year at nonprofit organizations or local government agencies to increase economic prosperity of diverse groups. SMIF recruits and matches VISTA members to site service partner positions in our region.

SMIF is currently hiring three VISTA members. One member will support SMIF’s Prosperity Initiative program, which supports entrepreneurs who identify as Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC). Another member, who will also be hosted by SMIF, will support the second year of a regional foods project to build the capacity of small farmers. The third member will work with Red Wing Ignite to establish a more inclusive approach for reaching and serving BIPOC entrepreneurs in rural communities. If you are interested in applying for any of these service opportunities, apply at or contact Barbara Gunderson, AmeriCorps director, at or 507-456-0353 by Sept. 30.

Economic development happens in many forms. At SMIF, we are proud to be able to support economic growth in southern Minnesota through opportunities that support entrepreneurs and the communities that they live in.

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. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.