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Tim Penny Guest Commentary: Benefitting from added resources

At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), one of our central tenets is a commitment to the future of rural Minnesota. While we continue to make our programming and resources accessible to communities of all sizes in our 20-county region, we know that many of our smaller towns can benefit from additional financial resources to help them grow and address challenges. Several ways we invest in small towns is through our Community Foundations, our Rural Entrepreneurial Venture program and our Small Town Grant program.

SMIF currently supports 30 small town community foundations. SMIF acts as the fiscal host for these foundations in addition to providing board education, marketing assistance, planned giving support and matching grants to further their local efforts. These foundations provide direct support for projects and programming important to their community, ranging from tourism amenities and marketing, early childhood projects, community events and much more. In the early days of the pandemic, many of the community foundations quickly mobilized to raise money to address local needs such as food assistance and technology for distance learning. When people invest in these community foundations, they are leaving a legacy for their town’s future.

Another program that focuses on small towns is the Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program. REV started as a pilot here at SMIF, with the goal of helping small towns develop innovative approaches for long-term economic growth. The first cohort of the REV program, which began in 2018, saw successes in youth retention efforts, tourism campaigns and building more supports for local entrepreneurs. SMIF’s second REV cohort began the program this year and includes the communities of Montgomery, Springfield, Wells and a collaborative of the Maple River School District towns (Mapleton, Amboy, Good Thunder and Minnesota Lake). Coaches from SMIF, Region Nine Development Commission and University of Minnesota Extension are working with each of these communities for a three-year period to provide tools and guidance as they determine how REV can create a pathway for sustainable economic growth in their towns.

A third way that SMIF supports small town growth is through the Small Town Grant program, an opportunity that we are currently seeking applications for. Every year we are excited to provide funding of up to $10,000 to communities with populations under 10,000. These grants have funded a wide variety of projects including a trail system, community gardens, the development of a town brand identity and marketing approaches to attract new residents. In St. James, volunteers formed a group called Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas which plans programs and events to bring people together to create a welcoming environment. La Crescent used the grant for a branding and marketing planning process to enhance the town’s image. The City of Preston focused their grant on creating resources to showcase current and future affordable workforce housing initiatives. The beauty of this grant is that it can often be tailored to fit the needs of the community, with the goal of fostering engagement and collaboration.

Applications for the Small Town Grant program are due on July 15, 2021. Contact Jennifer Heien at jenniferh@smifoundation.org or 507-214-7040 with questions. More details, including guidelines and application, can be found at smifoundation.org/smalltowngrants.

Small towns are the fabric of our region. At SMIF, we are honored to play a part in supporting their growth.

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