Roads, workers and broadband
The election campaign season is in full swing, with a lot of accusations thrown around and a lot of promises being made. In all the excitement, it's important that issues vital to outstate Minnesota not be forgotten. Here are three main issues fa...
The election campaign season is in full swing, with a lot of accusations thrown around and a lot of promises being made.
In all the excitement, it’s important that issues vital to outstate Minnesota not be forgotten.
Here are three main issues facing rural Minnesota, according to Heidi Omeraz, Ely City Council member and president of Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, and Bob Broeder, Le Seuer mayor and vice president of CGMC.
They note that, while parts of greater Minnesota appear to be recovering from the recession fairly well, serious problems are looming that will need attention from the governor and legislators.
Omeraz and Broeder say better broadband access is desperately needed in outstate Minnesota. Last session, the Legislature responded by creating a $20 million broadband grant program. This is a start, but it’s only a drop in the bucket, since they say the actual need is closer to $200 million in the next biennium.
It’s also not clear how the money will be spent. The state should get the new grant program off right by prioritizing high-impact economic development projects.
Rather than focusing first on isolated areas, funding should go to communities where high-quality broadband access will benefit the most people and ignite economic activity.
Bad roads can stand in the way of economic growth. As always, the governor and lawmakers need to keep a healthy balance between metro and outstate needs.
Road construction is expensive, and having enough money to keep up local roads is a top concern for cities, which can’t do it on their own, and need a healthy level of state road aid to repair deteriorating roads.
The Corridors of Commerce program, which aims to improve the flow of commerce on state highways by removing bottlenecks, is a good example of what the state is doing right. The much-needed passing lanes and turn lanes that have been added to Highway 34 east of Detroit Lakes were paid for through this program.
More of this kind of work is key to improving economic development in greater Minnesota.
The need is there. Last year, more than 120 projects applied for $300 million in available funding and only 10 were selected. The state needs leaders willing to put at least $200 million a year in into this program.
A shortage of skilled workers limits outstate Minnesota’s potential. The problem isn’t a lack of jobs, but a shortage of skilled workers available to fill them and a lack of housing for them.
Greater Minnesota has experienced a 40 percent increase in job vacancies since 2006, while vacancies in the metro area have declined 5 percent in the same time period.
On top of that, the workforce is aging more quickly in outstate Minnesota, where there are 27 counties with one in five residents over the age of 65. That is projected to grow to 54 counties by 2020, according to the state demographer.
These are the challenges: If the state fails to act, outstate cities will miss out on economic growth.
Workers need to be trained to fill the open jobs and they need somewhere to live near where they work.
So this campaign season, ask tough questions and demand real answers about these issues. The state’s future depends on it.