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Walz’s staff visits Grand Meadow to talk rural issues; Funding, aging population lead concerns

Community leaders and regular citizens expressed their concerns to 1st District U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s “Team Walz” staff during a meeting Tuesday morning. They discussed issues ranging from healthcare to infrastructure.

“No one is talking about how we’re going to reform the system, just how we’re going to pay for it,” said Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm during the discussion on healthcare.

Team Walz hosted a meeting at the Grand Meadow Community Center on behalf of Walz, a Democratic congressman who has announced his 2018 bid for Minnesota governor. The meeting was part of the team’s Southern Minnesota Way of Life Tour, in which they visit each of the 21 counties of Minnesota’s First Congressional District to focus on small towns.

“We are convening groups of people, from citizens to community leaders, with diverse backgrounds and perspectives and having them share with us what they believe Congressman Walz what the federal government should be focused on,” said Josh Syrjamaki, Walz’s chief of staff.

Present at the meeting were community leaders, business owners, healthcare workers and agricultural representatives from Austin, Albert Lea, Dexter, Grand Meadow, Stewartville and Preston.

At the meeting, attendees were asked to focus on three specific questions:

•What’s the best aspect of our way of life in Southern Minnesota?

•What’s the most serious challenge facing our rural communities?

•What’s one thing you would want the federal government to do, or not do, to enhance our way of life in Southern Minnesota?

The attendees agreed that the safety and overall sense of community was the best aspect of life in Southern Minnesota.

An issue that was prevalent during the discussion was healthcare.

“Healthcare comes up everywhere we go,” Syrjamaki said. “People are concerned about having access to affordable care, especially when they get sick.”

The attendees did not reach a consensus on how to solve the problem, with some favoring more government involvement while others opposed it. All, however, agreed that more work needed to be done on healthcare.

Another major issue discussed was the aging population of rural communities and the problems they have had with attracting and keeping young people. Syrjamaki said this was another common issue discussed at other meetings.

Jennifer Rowinski, administrator for Comforcare in Austin, said the waiting list for elderly long-term housing is one year out.

“I can take as many as I can, but if I’m full, I can’t take anymore,” she said.

Stiehm said that wages were a factor in failing to attract younger workers.

“If you drive around Austin, you’ll see ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere, but they’re only paying $9 to $10 an hour,” he said. “We have an unemployment rate of 4 percent, but a poverty rate of 20 percent.”

A general consensus among the attendees was that better access to internet, particularly for businesses and farms, and childcare services would be key to attracting younger people.

“We really need to be thinking that [high speed internet and broad band] is a core piece of our public infrastructure,” Syrjamaki said. “Like the roads and bridges of yesterday and today, the internet is going to be how communities thrive, not only economically, but culturally.”

“If you’re a young family with little kids and you’re looking to start your own business or work for somebody in town, and you don’t have access for your child to get good quality care, that becomes a disincentive to stay,” he added.