Common concerns illustrate the many challenges faced
Near the end of a two-hour discussion Tuesday at the U of M Crookston on how northwest Minnesota can remain economically competitive now and well into the future, the session's organizers asked each of the 35 or so people seated in the room to list the one aspect relating to economic development that they think is most critical to the region not being left behind.
It was clear only a few people into the rapid-fire response exercise that a handful of popular themes had emerged during the session co-hosted by the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED), the Northwest Regional Development Commission in Warren, and the Headwaters Regional Development Commission and Northwest Minnesota Foundation, both of Bemidji.
Here's a sampling:
• Housing: Many felt that their communities were lacking in this area, whether it was higher-end housing for professionals looking to not just work in a town but live there, too; mid-range-priced homes for middle income families; and, "affordable" housing for lower-income individuals and families. Representatives of various communities at the session also said housing price points for low, middle and higher income buyers and renters seem to differ depending on the community.
• Transportation and infrastructure: Agricultural interests represented around the table bemoaned the estimated $100 million loss to agriculture attributed solely to delays in getting grain and other commodities to market via rail because of all the oil being transported by train from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota. More than one agriculture representative at the table said a more rapid process for approving pipelines underground would ease the problem.
• Workforce issues: While some major employers like Digi-Key in Thief River Falls can't find and keep enough workers and constantly need possibly hundreds more, other communities in the region have consistent unemployment levels that are higher than the state average. How to not only connect those two needs but also show the unemployed the resources available to them is a huge challenge, many around the table said. Not only that, another challenge is getting the unemployed to actually want to work, when in many instances, when money spent on gasoline and other expenses related to a commute is factored in, a person can make more money on government assistance than if he/she is employed.
• Preparing the youth: While most middle-class families and those higher up on the income scale seem to produce young people who have basic knowledge of what's expected of them in the world, and who know how to act professionally in public and in the workplace, there are significant aspects of the population in the region in which youth don't learn those skills from their parents or other adult role models. It puts them behind and it's hard to catch up, several around the table said, so employers end up with someone who shows up for work like they're supposed to at 8 a.m. one day, but then shows up at 9 or even later the next day, for no apparent reason. High schools in the region need more programs that show students what's available to them in their future, whether it's technical training targeted at a specific skill or trade, or pursuing two-year or four-year degrees in college.
The meeting's hosts said they will compile everything they heard Tuesday, especially the ideas that that they heard that show real potential, and reach out to all of the participants soon.