Guest column: Strengthening the fabric of the region

Published 8:45 pm Friday, January 27, 2023

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Guest column by Tim Penny

At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation we are starting off the new year by reflecting on how we have worked to strengthen the fabric of our region over time. In part, we do this by celebrating a handful of our partners through stories in our foundation’s annual Impact Report.

Tim Penny

In the first story we hear from Johnny Vuong in the small town of Truman. He and his girlfriend, Jialing, opened a restaurant in 2018. They needed support to get started, so they reached out to SMIF for an Emerging Entrepreneur Loan, a funding partnership through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development that supports minority entrepreneurs. Johnny and Jailing used the loan on equipment and inventory to build up their kitchen. China House Cafe has quickly become a destination, drawing customers from the surrounding communities.

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For our second story we focus on the community of Spring Grove, which has taken full advantage of SMIF’s grants and programming over the years. Community Economic Development Associates has been a critical partner in this work. From a Makerspace program in the schools that launched the design of a Habitat for Humanity project, to the transformation of an empty alleyway into a beautiful public space, multiple community organizations have leveraged funding and partnerships to enhance Spring Grove’s vitality.

Our final story is set in Rice County, where early childhood leaders have developed systems of family support over many years with the help of grants from SMIF. These leaders are working hard to build a “ready for kindergarten” community so that families who raise their kids there can feel confident that there is a network helping their kids from birth to kindergarten. One of the most beneficial services they have provided is the hiring of early childhood navigators, who are bilingual and can help families navigate essential resources in the community.

These three stories are emblematic of SMIF’s efforts in support of entrepreneurship, community vitality and early childhood.

I invite you to read the stories from our 2022 Impact Report by visiting These stories highlight the good things that happen when people, ideas and resources come together. We are proud to be a partner in the beautiful tapestry that is southern Minnesota. We could not do this work without the partners who are committed to the place they call home.

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

Tim Penny is the president & CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Tim represented Minnesota’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 – 1994.