A view from nonmetro Minnesota: Make candidates address nonmetro issues as Election Day approaches
At this time in the election cycle, candidates for political office are desperately fighting for our attention with a barrage of television ads, appearances, mass mailings and all the other hoopla that comes with trying to forge a winning campaig...
At this time in the election cycle, candidates for political office are desperately fighting for our attention with a barrage of television ads, appearances, mass mailings and all the other hoopla that comes with trying to forge a winning campaign. However, let’s not forget that now is the time we must fight for their attention as well.
For many of us in nonmetro Minnesota, there is a real and constant struggle to avoid being overlooked by state leaders. While parts of nonmetro Minnesota appear to be recovering from the recession fairly well, serious problems are looming that need their attention. Evidence shows that without a solid plan for the future, rural communities will fall further behind the metro area due to unique concerns such as inadequate infrastructure (including a lack of broadband access and deteriorating roads), a rapidly aging workforce and a shortage of skilled workers to replace those retiring and dying.
We need a governor and legislators who will address these concerns proactively. As candidates make their rounds to community meetings and debates, citizens in nonmetro Minnesota need to press them for solutions on our most pressing issues.
As one example, better broadband access is desperately needed in nonmetro Minnesota. Last session the Legislature responded by creating a $20 million broadband grant program. This was a start, but it was only a drop in the bucket of what the actual need is in rural Minnesota. To truly show a commitment to making border-to-border broadband a reality, the governor and lawmakers should support the recommendation of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband for $200 million for broadband spending in the next biennium.
There also is a question of how the money will be spent. It is imperative the state set the right tone for the new grant program by prioritizing projects with the greatest impacts on economic development. Rather than connecting isolated areas, spending should be directed toward communities where high-quality broadband access would benefit the most people and ignite economic activity.
Better roads also are needed to support economic growth. Poised to be one of the top issues of 2015, it is clear Minnesota needs a comprehensive plan for transportation. As plans take shape, the governor and legislators must focus on the needs of nonmetro Minnesota as well as the metro area. Funding for local roads is a top concern for cities, which need more money to supplement local efforts to repair deteriorating roads.
The Corridors of Commerce program, which aims to improve the flow of commerce on Minnesota’s state highways by paying for projects that increase capacity and remove bottlenecks, also is key to improving economic development in nonmetro Minnesota. The need is there: Last year more than 120 projects applied for $300 million and only 10 were selected. We need leaders willing to put adequate resources - at least
$200 million a year - into this important program.
As another example, there’s a shortage of skilled workers in Minnesota, and that is limiting potential in the state, especially outside of the Twin Cities. Throughout much of nonmetro Minnesota, the problem isn’t a lack of jobs but a shortage of skilled workers available to fill them and a dearth of housing for them. Nonmetro Minnesota experienced a 40 percent increase in job vacancies since 2006 while vacancies in the metro area declined 5 percent, according to data from the Department of Employment and Economic Development. Moreover, the workforce is aging more quickly in nonmetro Minnesota. There are 27 counties in greater Minnesota where one in five residents is older than 65, and that is projected to grow to 54 counties by 2020, according to the state demographer.
If the state fails to address these mounting concerns, Minnesota will miss out on opportunities for economic growth. State leaders need to support the development of programs specifically geared to meet nonmetro Minnesota’s workforce needs by training workers to fill the open jobs and making sure they have somewhere to live near where they work.
Over the next six weeks, candidates will try various tactics to get our votes. Instead of simply allowing them to share vague ideas about their priorities, we urge you to ask tough questions and demand real answers about the issues that affect nonmetro Minnesota. The state’s future depends on leaders who have a clear vision for a vibrant and prosperous nonmetro Minnesota.
Heidi Omerza is a member of the Ely City Council and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. Bob Broeder is mayor of Le Seuer, Minn., and is vice president of the coalition.