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Report says rural areas have lost voice for important issues

Opinion poll on rural influence

Rural Minnesota "has lost its influence in policy discussions that occur in both the private and public sectors," according to a new study by the nonprofit Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minn.

As the state's rural population declines and ages, the study found that there are "fewer leaders or organizations who are dominant and effective voices on behalf of broad rural Minnesota issues."

Such traditional voices as agricultural groups "have lost influence as natural resources and other Greater Minnesota industries are a smaller part of Minnesota's economy."

Also, the "fragmentation" of advocacy for rural Minnesota has contributed to the loss of influence, according to the study. "Rural communities often end up competing more aggressively with each other than joining forces to compete as a region."

Fragmented voice

Scott Huizenga, East Grand Forks city administrator, said the report's reference to "fragmentation" struck him. "We have on one hand this notion that it's the metropolitan area (of the Twin Cities) vs. Greater Minnesota with regard to fighting for resources, developing a voice and so on," he said. "But we still see far too often Greater Minnesota competing within itself for ever-shrinking resources."

Even neighboring communities, such as East Grand Forks, Crookston and Ada, "work together whenever we can," Huizenga said. "But we also know deep down there are times we have to go on our own. Sometimes at the Legislature, we have to be cooperative and in the next breath be competitive."

Rural areas are "going to have to do it in a different way," he said, "getting past the 20th century model of a lot of intergovernmental assistance like state aid to cities. That's going by the wayside. We need now to do a better job of highlighting our strengths, including easy access to all amenities and great schools."

Big rural issues

Issues that matter the most to rural Minnesota "don't have a 'home' in the public policy arena," the report states.

"There is no state agency dedicated to a comprehensive policy agenda for rural Minnesota; rural legislative caucuses have been inconsistent and not very effective; and the statewide organizations with the greatest influence focus more and more of their attention on the Twin Cities and regional communities."

According to the center, the new Legislature faces major decisions on taxes and transportation, health and education issues, all critical to rural Minnesota.

While admitting that creation of a single, unifying voice for rural Minnesota would be impossible, the center urges "more strategic collaboration" and a more focused, research-driven rural agenda. It also recommends a greater effort to educate policymakers on the benefits of a strong rural Minnesota.

View from Warren

Cam Fanfulik, executive director of the Northwest Regional Development Commission, said that he hasn't had a chance to review the study report, but he offers a more upbeat assessment.

"We are much more optimistic about our region," he said.

The commission, based in Warren, Minn., serves Kittson, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau counties.

Population loss "is a severe issue here, and addressing it is difficult," Fanfulik said. "But this area is so entrepreneurial and business-oriented. Also, there are many people who like it here."

In a comprehensive economic development strategy report just released by the commission, "quality of life" and "quality of place" are cited as factors vital to attracting visitors, residents and workers to Northwest Minnesota. That should include greater promotion of cultural and recreational activities and attractions.

"In the past four years, I don't think we were nearly as affected by the recession as the rest of the country," he said. "Agriculture played a big role in that. Prices and weather were decent, and we had good crops. That plays out in all the small towns, too."

He agreed that rural influence at the legislative level "maybe is diminishing some," but he ticked off a half-dozen or so area legislators and called them "real strong advocates for rural Minnesota."

Rural Minnesota is "always going to have that situation, where there's more power in urban areas," he said. "But we are not lacking a voice."