Past Silos and Smokestacks: Transforming the Rural Economy in the Midwest, published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, pinpoints public investment, regional cooperation and coordination, and fostering innovation and local entrepreneurs as the building blocks for a rural Midwestern renaissance. The report sets forth this four-pronged strategic philosophy:
The report comes down emphatically on the side of public sector investments in education, transportation and services, particular in such cutting-edge frontiers as telemedicine and distance learning, and calls for strengthening rural labor markets and boosting worker skills. The study also calls for investing in telecommunication and transportation infrastructure, with a new emphasis on linking rural areas to urban centers.
Nothing should rank higher as a priority than improving postsecondary education attainment in Minnesota. Educational attainment levels continue to lag in rural Minnesota, despite graduation rates and test scores that meet or exceed those of metro Minnesota.
Consensus is emerging in the following areas:
The state’s interregional highway corridors, the 2,960 miles that link the state’s main regional centers and form the backbone for travel by heavy freight haulers within and through the state, need reinvestment and reconfiguring to reflect changing patters in freight and passenger travel patterns.
Freight movement happens mostly by truck, but in Minnesota we rely more heavily on rail water than other states. Investment in our rail system must continue and the state needs improved and expanded facilities for transferring freight from one mode to another.
Transit options are needed for Greater Minnesota residents who don’t or can’t drive. Current options that merit public investment include dial-a-ride services, rides from volunteer drivers, and bus trips between towns. Transit to and from work in rural areas requires further investment as well as effective coordination among private companies, public agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Safety always needs more attention, as serious and deadly roadway accidents are more common in rural Minnesota than in urban areas.
“Complete streets,” designed for safe access by all users, whether pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders or motorists, may be the most overlooked investment. These improvements can reduce energy costs, encourage fitness, and improve the layout of communities. People are attracted to places where a mix of important destinations are grouped in a central location, which fits the model of small town Minnesota in years past: compact, walkable, mixed-use development. The state government should increase efforts to work with rural towns on zoning and planning for such vibrant communities.
In terms of broadband infrastructure, the information superhighway is now as fully important as traditional country roads for rural Minnesota. Connect Minnesota, supported largely by federal economic recovery program funds, says it simply and clearly: “Without sufficient broadband access and a high level of technology adoption, Minnesota communities and residents will remain technologically and economically crippled in today’s digital world.” The state has a vested interest in ensuring broadband availablility across all of Greater Minnesota.
A county-by-county ranking conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, shows that many of Minnesota's rural communities, particularly in the northern half of the state, are in need of improvements in health factors and outcomes. The County Health Rankings report offers a menu of more than 80 programs and policies that have been shown to be helpful or effective at improving health, many of which could be implemented by state action. These range from provision of universal health coverage to expanding the scope of nurse practitioners to increased use of telemedicine. Many address underlying factors in public health, such as early childhood development programs; education, meal and social programs for the elderly; and earnings supplements for the working poor.