Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Of streetcars and rural development

More than once we've promoted the idea that greater Minnesota needs a more diversified economy, particularly on the Iron Range. Apparently, we're not the only ones with similar thoughts. These days more and more resources are being developed to help local communities empower local businesses and develop the local economy. Here are some that have recently caught our eye.

Minnesota, in particular the Twin Cities and our agricultural areas, has long benefited from the development of co-ops. According to the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design [CIRD], "The USDA Rural Development's Rural Business-Cooperative Service helps residents form new cooperatives and improves the operations of existing ones through education, research, technical assistance, publications and funding, and provides much-needed capital in rural areas."

Spring Valley, Minnesota
Spring Valley, Minnesota
Photo by J. Harrington

CIRD also highlights an upcoming "Community Builders Webinar: Creative Approaches to Economic Development: What it Takes to Attract and Retain Businesses in Today's Economy on February 25."

The University of Minnesota's own Center for Small Towns will be hosting a Rural Arts and Culture Summit on June 2-4 in Morris. The theme this year is "From the Ground Up: Cultivating Creative People and Places."

rural Chisago County Minnesota
rural Chisago County Minnesota
Photo by J. Harrington

I've recently been amused by the Republicans emphasis on greater Minnesota. Once upon a time, so long ago the the Department of Employment and Economic Development was called the Department of Trade and Economic Development, Minnesota had a Rural Development Board. That disappeared in the mid-1990s, during the Republican Administration of Arne Carlson. The DFL controlled the House for many of those years so they may bear some responsibility for abolishing that board. Along about those times or a little earlier, Minnesota produced and regularly updated a Rural Investment Guide. My point is that Minnesota used to have institutions focused on greater Minnesota.

Maybe the trouble started when Earl Butz, a Republican Agriculture Secretary, told farmers to "get big or get out." That philosophy essentially signed a death knell for many rural communities. In 1862, when the USDA was established, about 90% of Americans were farmers. Today its about 2%. Think about how many farmers it takes to support a cafe or a Target store. The growth of bigger farms hasn't much helped rural school districts or businesses. Of course, once we had streetcars in Minnesota too. Now we're faced with the need to rebuild a rural economy and an urban streetcar system because we weren't wise enough to protect what we had. Have we learned any lessons from our history, or will our lack of institutional memory support further destruction of our environment? One of my long-time rural development heroes, Aldo Leopold, once wrote "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." Are we keeping track of all Minnesota's social, economic and environmental cogs in both "The Cities" and greater Minnesota? It would seem not.


By Kay Ryan 

Trying to walk
the same way
to the same store
takes high-wire
each step
not exactly
as before
risks chasms
of flatness.
One stumble
alone and   
Few are
the willing
and fewer
the champions.

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