June 25, 2022

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

Keys to rural communities thriving

BY REED ANFINSON

Co-Publisher, Grant County Herald

There are three fundamental keys for rural communities to thrive, a study by management consulting firm McKinsey says: sectors or tradeable industries, workforce, and community and connectivity.

By sectors, it means having one or more local industries that create employment and contribute to the community. In doing so, they make it stronger. It also includes our agriculture sector, which contributes to the region’s overall financial strength and employment. If a community has a college or vocational technical school, it further enhances its opportunities.

People who make up the workforce in a community are its “lifeblood,” the McKinsey report says. “A healthy, skilled workforce is the most important factor in attracting and retaining employers in key sectors.” In addition, workers spread wealth and create additional jobs by buying goods and services within their communities.

Our challenge, which McKinsey’s report really doesn’t acknowledge, is that finding workers is a major challenge for our communities. Unemployment is Minnesota is at a record 2.2 percent. In rural areas, businesses are starved for employees.

That workforce deficit accentuates the importance to the third point in McKinsey’s report, community and connectivity. It includes what it calls the intangible elements that make up a community and enhance its quality of life. High-speed broadband, healthcare, childcare, cultural opportunities including the arts, and quality education for its’ children.

It is these intangible assets that a community must strengthen and maintain if it is to attract workers. These are “people creation” efforts that have become the primary goal of communities, superseding the job creation to priority of past decades. We have the jobs; we need the employees.

Quality of life assets in a community can “slow outmigration and attract thriving sectors in the future,” the report says.

In pursuing economic development efforts, a community must first define its value proposition, the McKinsey report says. A value proposition is a simple statement that summarizes why a family, or an individual, would want to settle down in your community. It highlights the distinct benefits they will get by becoming part of your area.

After identifying your value proposition, community leaders must then determine the best ways in which those values can be enhanced and promoted. 

One suggestion from the McKinsey report is for the community to undertake a “big push.” “The idea of the ‘big push’ is to funnel a significant amount of investment into a particular area of need to create a sustainable, long-term, virtuous cycle of economic growth,” it says. This big push has to be aimed at what has been determined to be the primary asset whose improvement will step up the community’s game when it comes to attracting new residents.

These efforts can be aimed at embracing the placemaking qualities of the community. Placemaking, by one definition, is “the process of creating quality places that people want to live, work, play, and learn in,” the report says.

Developing our tourism assets is another way to attract people to the area, however, in our prairie western Minnesota communities, there aren’t a lot of tourism attractions. That makes building on the assets we do have important. In the Appleton area, an old gravel pit is being turned into what will be a regional off-highway vehicle park that is already drawing people from hundreds of miles away.

Our prairies and rivers can also be turned into tourism attractions. Our golf courses, parks, and cultural history can be built upon. While the goal may be attracting tourists, the real underlying reward is making your community more attractive to is residents.

In small communities, we are generally good about supporting local entrepreneurs. We help them get started and expand. These businesses are the heart of your community.

“Small and medium-size businesses generate local wealth, because profits go to the owner, who is more likely to live and spend locally than shareholders of a large corporation,” the McKinsey study says.

“While attracting new businesses generates local excitement, expanding and retaining (small businesses) has a higher return on investment, in part because existing businesses do not require tax incentives to move to the area. Local businesses are stalwarts of the community, paying economic dividends through local taxes and job creation,” it says. 

Small communities also have an opportunity to attract remote workers who are looking for a safer community, getting away from long commutes, becoming part of a place where they know and participate in events with the neighbors and where their kids have a chance to participate in school activities due to smaller class sizes.

However, at the same time, we know that collaboration that is part of working around others leads to more creativity. People bounce ideas off each other, and through their interactions, new ideas spring to life. In small towns, we should have areas where remote workers can gather in a collaborative setting. It would have a common space surrounded by individual offices.

Rural communities can be great at forming committees to examine themselves, brainstorming to find ways to attract new residents, developing lists of priorities, and then absolutely lousy at following up to achieve their goals. We know this from having reported on far too many of these efforts and having participated in them over the years.

Why do they so frequently fail to move forward, building on the efforts of their defined goals and needs? Most often no one takes charge. People get distracted; efforts become fragmented. You can’t pursue addressing your community’s needs meeting once a month to review your list of objectives. It is like expecting results for a diet and exercise plan that you work at one a day a month. Results come from unwavering, persistent commitment.

That unwavering commitment requires someone taking charge, fulltime, of the community’s efforts. It’s an investment in the community’s future that will show a payback over time.