Symposium: Connections are the key
By Tom Larson
After cancelling last year's Symposium on Small Towns, organizers were relieved when about 200 people signed up for this year's event.
Perhaps because the issues facing rural towns have never before been so relevent. As state and local budgets dwindle, so, too, could opportunities to save and strengthen rural areas.
The symposium, "Finding Solutions and Redefining Communities," was co-sponsored by the University of Minnesota, Morris' Center for Small Towns and Minnesota Rural Partners.
Essentially a one-day gathering, the symposium featured a speech by Colleen Landkamer, the USDA State Director for Rural Development, a gubernatorial policy panel, and break-out sessions on various topics.
A panel of "real people doing real stuff" featured a presentation by Muriel Krusemark about Hoffman's unique, small-town redevelopment successes, a review of "kit homes" and "eco villages" by architect Richard Peterson, and a review of Willmar's attempts to revitalize its downtown area with landscape architect Adam Regn Arvidson. Arvidson was part of the design team that won a state architectural award this year for its plan for the Morris elementary school property.
Although not part of the gubernatorial program, DFL candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher visited UMM's biomass and organic dairy facilities on Wednesday.
The need to build relationships and partnerships rose as the general theme of the symposium.
Landkamer cited the need for a "rural policy" in much the same vein as agriculture policies provide planning tools.
She also said that, within that policy framework, communities need to strengthen "regional connections" to more effectively address small-town issues such as jobs, housing, infrastructure, energy, food safety and broadband availability.
"It's all about relationships as far as I'm concerned," Landkamer said.
Refering to Hoffman's economic development, Landkamer said rural areas need to do a better job of "mapping assets" and spreading the word about what goes on in small communities.
Gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza and Jim Mulder, running mate of Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner, were the only participants in the policy panel moderated by Kate Smith, of Minnesota Public Radio.
Entenza, too, cited the need for partnerships if communities want to make use of the resources they have and to help grow in areas such as locally produced energy.
Mulder, former head of the Association of Minnesota Counties, said the connections between rural and metro -- particularly the Capitol in St. Paul -- need to be closed.
"The voice of rural Minnesota has been lost in the noise of St. Paul," Mulder said. "They've lost the practical aspects of what it takes to succeed out here."
The panelists addressed the need to develop better policies for dealing with state aid to cities and counties and incremental development in local energy systems.
The consequences are compelling, Entenza said.
He said that communities of a few thousand people around his hometown, Worthington, were becoming "shells" as business opportunities dry up and people leave to find others. Regional centers, like Morris, could be next if changes aren't made.
"I don't want to wake up and find they're about to go, too," he said.