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Our View: Consider all that COVID-19 is teaching us

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Like an end-of-summer, little kids’ tee-ball game, this pandemic seems to be dragging on forever. We are so done. But rather than folding up the camp chairs early — and giving up on wearing masks, distancing, and other simple actions we vigilantly and selflessly can take to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors — let’s recommit to taking this moment as seriously as its 159,000 U.S. deaths and counting. Let’s recommit to banding together, rather than sowing division, to beat this thing.

And let’s pause to consider all that COVID-19 is teaching us, including the need to rally around and support local private businesses; to attract more economic activity in our community in order to expand, diversify, and strengthen our tax base; to insist that our government bodies operate with urgency; and to expand high-speed internet so it’s accessible to everyone.

As a result of the pandemic, “The folks in Washington and even the folks down in St. Paul are realizing the importance of their small-business base and large-business base, and they’re acting on it through things like (the federal Paycheck Protection Program), auto loans, and the … the significant funds that are going out to cities and to counties — and the counties really have a mandate to use that money to help businesses,” Brain Hanson, CEO of APEX, a private, business-led economic development organization in Duluth, said in an interview held virtually last week with News Tribune Editorial Board members.

“On the other side, there is more to do,” Hanson said. “We could simplify some things in this city to cut through a little bit of the red tape and to make it easier to build here and to invest here. And (Duluth could use) a little less focus on regulating what people are selling and their hours and what people are wearing.”

The need is to drive investment, especially to main street — and especially now, Hanson said. That’s among the lessons being taught by the economic fallout of COVID-19. Consider the businesses that have closed, whether permanently or temporarily, or are struggling, and not just the big guys like AAR and Verso. A culture in Duluth that’s friendlier to business would help us weather moments like this.

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There perhaps has been no need more exposed by COVID-19 than the need to broaden broadband. With so many Minnesotans working from home, attending classes and meetings from home, and shopping from home, reliable, high-speed, truly border-to-border broadband is as critical in 2020 as electrification and indoor plumbing were 100 years ago. While great strides have been made by both state and federal governments, politics too often has been put ahead of appropriate funding, and an estimated 14% to 17% of nonmetro Minnesotans are still without internet access or the speeds needed for videoconferencing and other school and business activities.

Closer to home, the Duluth-Superior metropolitan statistical area is in the lowest 10% in the country for home broadband connections, according to APEX.

“That is shameful,” Hanson said.

A lack of adequate internet access has left far too many Northlanders “hamstrung” during the pandemic, APEX board member Lisa Bodine, owner of Giant Voices, a Duluth marketing and advertising firm, said.

“There will be an investment in broadband because of COVID. I think it will become a priority,” Bodine predicted in the interview with the Editorial Board. “My biggest concern (is that the economy in) … Duluth very heavily relies on our medical community and our education community, and everyone knows those are highly subsidized industries by the government. Two of our key regional pillars, from an economic-development standpoint, will likely be facing significant shortfalls.”

The lesson in that from COVID?

“We cannot ignore the private sector,” Bodine said. “This is the time when those industrial jobs and these small-business jobs … need to be the focus, not just a part of the equation. … I really think some of our local elected folks need to hone in more on what’s going on.”

We all can. And we all can focus more on what this moment is teaching us rather than its difficulties and challenges. Working together, we can make the changes necessary to become economically stronger and stronger as a community.

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And we can continue to do the small things, like wearing face masks in public, that help us all stay safe.

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Related Topics: OUR VIEWCORONAVIRUS
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