Small towns meeting boils down to connections and leaders

More than 200 people turned out today for the Symposium on Small Towns and Rural-Urban Gathering put on in Morris on the University of Minnesota campus.

A similar gathering planned last year failed to get enough interest to actually take place, so organizers were gratified at the turnout — everyone from community organizers to students to experts on food, energy and immigration.

Jane Leonard of the Minnesota Rural Partners and David Fluegel of the Center for Small Towns asked me to try to wrap things up at the end of the day for those attending, so what follows is more or less what I told folks.

It wasn’t an especially auspicious time to hold such a gathering. The economy is squeezed and uncertainty abounds about how quickly it can rebound. Politics is in turmoil at all levels and we seem to be having a fundamental debate about what we as a society want to do collectively. And, to get to dollars and cents, Minnesota’s income-tax-based aid to cities has been cut and could be cut some more, a portent that small town officials consider an approaching disaster.

Jim Thoreen, a recently retired county administrator and a candidate for the Legislature, told me at breakfast he thought people were looking for the new normal. We don’t know what it is but we know it’s coming, he said.

And I think the conversation today was around what that new normal might look like. Of course, God is in the details:

Architect Richard Peterson described his small-scale, affordable kit houses and eco-villages. Willmar has been getting architects and city officials and residents together for several years to focus on a specific set of downtown revitalization projects. The city’s inability to pay for beautification was compensated for from the non-profit organization set up. The small town of Hoffman accomplished a laundry list of successes — filling storefronts, adding jobs, building places for kids to play, getting money from the Minnesota Twins, the health department and anywhere else economic development director Muriel Krusemark could find.

Pope County found $5,000 to help a floral shop experiment with growing greenhouse lettuce in the winter. Small wind generators are popping up; food cooperatives are extending their reach. Immigrants are filling empty storefronts.

Two principles emerged from the day for me:

Relationships. Colleen Landkamer, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development office in the Twin Cities, stressed the importance of connections among government officials. Independence Party lieutenant governor candidate Jim Mulder urged people to look for new relationships to get things done. It isn’t the rules and laws that will determine a new normal; it’s the right people talking and thinking to other right people.

Leadership. At every turn, it becomes clearer that the difference between failure and success in the new normal is the ability to engage in acts of leadership. People acting on ideas make things happen.

As Dave Engstrom, of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities said after hearing Krusemark list her accomplishments in tiny Hoffman, “Every small town needs a Muriel.”

The 200 people in the room are among the people who can show that leadership but beyond that, it seems to me, their task — besides thinking about food sheds and sustainability and jobs — is to help others commit those acts of leadership.

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