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Guest commentary: Making the case for rural

By Tim Penny

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation President/CEO

Anyone who knows me well knows that I regularly champion the benefits of living in rural Minnesota. Not only was I born and raised here, but I have served Greater Minnesota for many years, first during my time in the U.S. Congress and now as the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF). Now there is growing evidence that many young people are putting down roots in small towns, drawn to a strong sense of community, the lower cost of living, the proximity to natural areas and, increasingly, the awareness of the ability to work remotely.

Married couple Caleb and Blake Lauritsen-Norby were happily settled in the Twin Cities but made the decision to move to Lanesboro after their first visit there reminded them of the small towns where they grew up. They ended up opening a grocery store, Parkway Market and Coffeehouse – a much-needed amenity in Lanesboro. With the help of a Small Enterprise Loan from SMIF and loan partner CEDA, Caleb and Blake were able to update the building’s equipment. Caleb also has a Lego business, Planet Brick, upstairs. For Caleb and Blake, the reasons behind moving to rural were plentiful. The real estate is more affordable, the high-speed internet is faster than what they experienced in the metro, they are surrounded by beautiful landscape and they are able to have a close connection with their customers.

For Shawn Vogt Sween, one of SMIF’s Board of Trustees, her move to rural Minnesota was about returning to the place where she grew up, in a small township between Grand Meadow and Spring Valley. Now a Harvard-educated lawyer, Shawn initially left her hometown to pursue her education and kickstart her career. She found herself moving across the country for a span of 14 years with her husband and high school sweetheart, Patrick. From Washington D.C. to California, nothing felt home to the couple quite like life in rural Minnesota. The pair realized they wanted to raise their children in their home community. Today, Shawn, Patrick and their five children live on a hobby farm two miles from the farm where Shawn grew up and her family still lives. Shawn serves her community through her law practice and is proud to demonstrate that small towns are an excellent place for business owners to be. She has found that people are eager to support local businesses and has enjoyed being able to give back to the community where she grew up.

A recent report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development found that wages in rural Minnesota can go further in meeting the cost of living compared to the seven-county metro area. Employers and economic development professionals can use this report, and the accompanying tool that shows wage data for various occupations across the state, to recruit more people to move to rural Minnesota.

Additionally, remote work has become so commonplace that more people are able to live where they want to live instead of where their work is located. This is a huge opportunity for small towns to gain a younger generation of workers who are committed to building their lives in rural Minnesota.

SMIF is able to play a supporting role for people moving back to the region. For entrepreneurs who want to start or grow a business here, we offer business financing and training opportunities. For families who have young children, we support early childhood through a variety of programs and funding, including efforts to enhance the availability and quality of childcare facilities.

Personally, there is no place I would rather be than in rural Minnesota. As the pandemic continues to shape our lives, I believe more and more people will be moving back home or choosing rural where they can work remotely or start their own businesses while taking advantage of small-town life.

To read more stories about young people who are choosing to work and live in SMIF’s 20-county region, visit smifoundation.org/stories.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.