Guest column: Supporting small towns for thriving communities

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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Guest column by Tim Penny

I grew up in the town of Kiester, which, according to the latest U.S. Census, has a population of 488. I know firsthand that small towns often face unique challenges, including limited access to financial resources and a reduced tax base. I also know that the nature of living in a small town makes it easy for people to work together and enhance the vitality of the place they call home. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation we know that supporting the small towns in our 20-county region is crucial for fostering equitable development and ensuring that all our communities have the same chance to thrive.

Tim Penny

SMIF’s Small Town Grant, which opens soon, can help bridge the gap in financial resources by providing the necessary funds for projects that ultimately enhance the quality of life for residents. I’d like to highlight some of the projects that communities have implemented recently with the support of this grant.

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In Caledonia (population 2,831), the city used a Small Town Grant to organize a Holiday Pop-Up Shop to allow community members with business ideas to temporarily trial their business concept in a brick-and-mortar setting downtown. This allowed entrepreneurs to introduce new product lines, test new markets and generate awareness of their product. This program generated huge results, as three of the home-based businesses that participated in the program have continued their businesses in a brick-and-mortar setting.

In Elkton (population 133), the grant was used, in part, for sound boards to muffle noise in the community center. More people are renting this space now that the sound is more manageable. This has enhanced the quality of the space as it can be more easily used for town hall meetings and private events without sound issues.

In Dundas, (population 1,744), the grant was used to support a new annual event: Oktoberfest. Dundas residents and businesses benefited from having a new community-wide event that they could call their own. According to one of the organizers, there was even one family who moved to the area from the Twin Cities after attending Oktoberfest. The group is already planning for this year’s event which will be held on Sept. 21.

SMIF’s Small Town Grant opens on July 15. More information can be found at We are grateful to Paul Johnsons’ children, Amy De Jong, Paula Rehder and Scott Johnson, for continuing their father’s legacy by supporting this program.

Another way that SMIF supports small towns is through our Community Foundation program. There are 32 community foundations under SMIF’s umbrella.

These volunteer-led, place-based foundations are able to quickly meet the needs of their communities. While SMIF provides both administrative and financial support on an annual basis, these foundations recently received an extra boost thanks to an anonymous matching donor. Thanks to this donor, SMIF was able to award $90,000 in grants to our community foundations over the past couple of months.

In Mapleton (population 1,675), the Mapleton Area Foundation is putting the matching funds to good use on a wide variety of projects. They are hiring a firm to provide architectural plans for a daycare, a critical investment in any small town. They are also upgrading some of their community marketing materials including a billboard and a park sign in order to market Mapleton as a place to visit, shop and live. They even received a grant to replace their apple press for a fall festival, which kids look forward to using every year to make apple juice.

In Plainview (population 3,515) the Plainview Elgin Millville Foundation will be implementing an exciting new summer program. They will use the funds to purchase pool passes for youth in the community to make the city pool more accessible for all.

It is so empowering to see what small towns are able to accomplish with increased financial resources. By investing in small towns, we help build resilient, vibrant communities.

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.