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Extension > Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships > RSDP Newsletter > RSDP Happenings - Focus: SE MN Together

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RSDP Happenings - Focus: SE MN Together

SE MN Together Community Conversation in Albert Lea. Photo by Peter Schuneman, Pocket Watch Photo, for SE MN Together.

May 2016

By Elizabeth Braatz

One of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships’ (RSDP) three core goals is “to strengthen the long-term social, economic, and environmental health of Greater Minnesota through active citizen leadership.” An excellent example of this can be seen in the Southeast RSDP’s (SE RSDP) co-sponsorship of and collaboration with SE MN Together.

SE MN Together is a special working group dedicated to fostering regional conversations and finding solutions to economic challenges. Southeastern Minnesota faces a predicted 45,000 worker shortage over the next 20 years as the Destination Medical Center Initiative brings jobs into the area (SE MN Together). To address this challenge, the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) funded the SE MN Together project with a one-year grant to start conversations throughout the Region. The SE RSDP has played a key role in facilitating this dialogue.

Regional voice
From the beginning, the SE MN Together project invited a variety of collaborators and needed additional sponsorship. That was where the SE RSDP stepped in. As SE RSDP Executive Director Erin Meier recalled, “As the group formed and the project became more defined, we decided to help sponsor because they were asking the kind of questions about the Region that we also are interested in addressing.”

SE MN Together Community Conversation in Winona. Photo by Peter Schuneman, Pocket Watch Photo, for SE MN Together.

Specifically, RSDP helped contribute to a 25 percent cash match required by the SMIF grant. Meier and SE RSDP Board Chair Bob Cline participated on the core coordinating committee and helped to plan the meetings and bring community members across the Region together.

The results have been better than even SMIF expected. Within one year, SE MN Together, with SE RSDP’s help, coordinated three regional “Community Conversations” to help stakeholders brainstorm strategies to address common economic concerns. As Meier recalled, “We had an incredible turnout … over a hundred at every meeting.”

The variety of stakeholders was also encouraging. Top priorities were identified in collaboration with staff from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), local Economic Development Authorities (EDAs), transportation agencies, companies, housing industry representatives, local community welcoming committees, and educational groups such as community colleges. Based on a short “Community Conversations” video clip published by SE MN Together, the conversations were helpful for all.

SE MN Together Community Conversation in Albert Lea. Photo by Peter Schuneman, Pocket Watch Photo, for SE MN Together.

For some, the conversations were simply a needed wake-up call on issues facing the Region. “I honestly wasn’t aware of the workforce shortage in this part of the state,” reflected Thomas Trehus from Minnowa Construction Inc. during the video interview. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to help … ease that problem.”

For others, the conversations were necessary to promote professional development of new labor markets. “I think this is really critical,” said Ellen Kehr, a Blue Zones Project Manager who was also featured in the project’s video. “To have a vibrant economy, you have to not just have jobs, you need to have the people who will perform the jobs.”

Besides intangible connections, the diverse stakeholders produced many concrete plans. Examples of actions taking place following the conversations included:

SE MN Together Community Conversation in Albert Lea. Photo by Peter Schuneman, Pocket Watch Photo, for SE MN Together.

Sheila Kiscaden, commissioner of the Olmsted County Board and co-chair of SE MN Together, summarized the conversations nicely. “We have demonstrated that there is a sincere interest in engaging in regional collaborative efforts to resolve issues and opportunities that affect our Region. The energy and enthusiasm of the participants in the regional conversations [will have a huge] impact on our workforce issues and on our ability to plan and implement projects that have regional impact.”

Future of regional collaboration
Although normally SMIF’s “One Big Thing” grants last for one year, SMIF has offered $20,000 in start-up funds for collaborative projects from SE MN Together. Six projects are planning on seeking these seed grants, and SE MN Together is developing plans to continue the project for a second year. The SE RSDP has also stepped up to lead two Economic Design Team visits. Although plans are still in progress, the general idea is that this team will assist two communities with professional development by bringing economic specialists and technical experts to work with communities. As Meier described, “It’s a way to connect small communities with regional and statewide assets … providing access to expertise.”

In addition to helping the Region, creating this connection was beneficial for both SE MN Together and for RSDP. As Kiscaden explained, “[RSDP representatives] were an integral part of our success, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration and partnership.”

SE MN Together Community Conversation in Albert Lea. Photo by Peter Schuneman, Pocket Watch Photo, for SE MN Together.

RSDP also looks forward to future collaboration. “It’s provided a lot of visibility for RSDP,” Meier said. “It’s been an opportunity to connect with formal structures we don’t often intersect with and work with people we haven’t partnered with in the past.”

Although some individual projects are focused locally, the net effect on the Region could be huge. By bringing in businesses, collaborating with colleges, consulting with civic authorities, and starting sessions with communities, SE MN Together and SE RSDP are setting the groundwork for a regional conversation that applies to RSDP principles while helping businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies throughout the Southeast. As Kiscaden said, “The conversations were a success!”

Elizabeth Braatz is a student in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) majoring in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management. She is currently working with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant.

RSDP connects communities with the resources of the University of Minnesota to drive sustainability in Greater Minnesota, and is part of University of Minnesota Extension.

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