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Reminders of What Government Does Well

November 07, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Yesterday's elections serve as just one more example of a properly functioning government. Today we look at another set of public agencies that help commerce run smoothly on Minnesota's countryside.

Scrolling through the latest issue of the USDA Rural Development newsletter for Minnesota, state director Colleen Landkamer highlights a number of recent projects that helped improve or expand economic development and quality of life for rural Minnesota residents.

Coming off super storm Sandy, one report noted how USDA funding helped provide four communities in southwestern Minnesota's Lincoln County with new storm warning siren systems. It rightfully notes that Lincoln County storm damage doesn't approach New York and New Jersey's, but tells how people are still recovering from a July 2011 tornado that hit the area’s homes, businesses and farms. The cities of Tyler, Lake Benton, Hendricks and Ivanhoe asked for and received $20,000 in USDA grants and $15,000 in loans to install new systems that include two-way digital communications and other features to assure they will function when needed.

Landkamer and rural investment partners recently visited Harvest Moon Local Foods Cooperative at Long Lake, west of Minneapolis. People living in rural areas of Hennepin and Wright counties formed their local foods co-op in the midst of the Great Recession, and began operating in 2010 with help from USDA grants.

USDA provides feasibility grants and start-up capital for local foods cooperatives through the Food Co-op Initiative (FCI), a Dennison-based organization, with offices in Providence, R.I., as well. It works with various organizations to promote food co-op growth and development.

“Here’s the really good news,” said Kevin Edberg, executive director of Cooperative Development Services, another USDA partially funded organization based in St. Paul. “There are 100 local food organizations working on developing consumer food co-ops at this time.”

That would increase local food co-op development by nearly 20 percent in the U.S. Most, like the East Side St. Paul neighborhood Gateway Cooperative now under development, are in urban areas that do not qualify for USDA financial or intellectual support.

Support for them, however, comes from the Blooming Prairie Foundation, an offshoot of a former food co-op wholesale organization working in tandem with the National Cooperative Grocers Association. Edberg said cooperative groups are trying to get Congress to broaden authorization of USDA programs to include under served urban communities, in addition to rural communities with small populations. That would include areas such as the Mounds Park neighborhood where Gateway is forming.

There are also models for interdepartmental collaboration that could guide government units and local and state program leaders to combine programs for economic development and betterment of people’s lives going forward.

One such example is the “Partnership for Sustainable Communities” program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This partnership works in collaboration with USDA when the latter’s programs aren’t expressly restricted by geographic or population limits.

HUD, EPA and DOT have adopted six “livability principles” to guide their work with public and private partners on community projects. They include providing more transportation choices, promoting equitable, affordable housing, enhancing economic competitiveness, supporting existing communities, coordinating and leveraging federal policies and investments, and by valuing communities and neighborhoods.

One urgent policy action at the federal level that has unknown consequences for rural Minnesota is the unfinished work on a new federal farm program, which yesterday's elections will influence. Whether a lame duck session of Congress will now go back to work or wait until a new Congress is seated in January was not known heading into the elections. With the election settling our nation's partisan fight, Congress should act quickly to ensure the USDA maintains its track record of helping people in rural and urban communities by passing a new farm bill. 

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