Central Minnesotans kick the tires of regional plan

For more than a year, a group of a couple hundred people–business owners, elected officials, students, retirees and others–from five counties has been meeting to drink coffee and work toward establishing a set of goals for central Minnesota. They’ve been hashing over transportation, housing, job creation and other topics with the goal of creating a shared idea of what residents and local governments should try to accomplish by the year 2035.

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It’s an example of how organizers and leaders in Minnesota and elsewhere are looking for new ways to both sample public opinion and engage people in making choices about the future. The belief is that a strong, consensus-driven vision will lead to better policy and economic decisions. Ground Level has been tracking the project and we’ve even hosted a couple of related online discussions, which you can find here.

Yesterday afternoon, the group gathered at The Lodge in Baxter, where wooden boats and old motors festoon the walls, to review and give feedback on a preliminary set of plan recommendations built around 11 topics. In some cases, participants expressed skepticism at what the group has so far rendered and pushed toward greater specificity.

“We’re getting closer to the end,” said Dan Frank of the Little-Falls-based Initiative Foundation, which is helping facilitate the sessions. The process is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the tune of $825,000 and is one of about 45 efforts HUD is underwriting around the country. “This is the input part today,” said Frank. “We want to give you the chance while [the plan] is still in draft form to give us input.”

Participants, seated at numbered round tables, were asked to select four topics out of the possible 11 to discuss and to move to the appropriate, topic-centric tables. Specifically, they were asked to comment on what works, what doesn’t, what’s missing and what’s next. “Focus on goals, rather than the how-to,” advised Frank, adding that the action steps will come later.

At a table focused on “Changing Populations,” participants contemplated an outstate population that’s both aging and becoming more diverse. One person said immigrants will be crucial when it comes to offsetting the loss in economic contributions from retiring baby boomers. Another suggested including the goal of trying to improve the attitudes of locals when it comes to immigrants. Yet another said she simply didn’t think the draft recommendations were attainable.

At another table, where people were talking “Education and Workforce Development,” participants pushed to make the recommendations more specific by suggesting a focus on funding for college and apprenticeships. One person suggested that an emphasis on teleworking and online jobs should be included.

The meeting, it seemed, accomplished what leaders hoped it would. The group kicked the tires of a variety of proposals and gave frank, real-world feedback, which will be incorporated into the final plan.

Cheryal Lee Hills, executive director of the Region Five Development Commission, which has spearheaded the two-year project, told the group that central Minnesota is being held up as a model in other parts of the country, due to the high level of participation in the visioning process and the partnerships forged with foundations.

Hills said there are just two meetings left, one in June and another in August. In June, the group will review draft policies and discuss implementation. “On August 14th, we’ll celebrate the final plan,” she said, adding that she’d invited U.S. Senator Al Franken to be the keynote speaker. “So far, we’re on his calendar,” she said.

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