Tim Penny: Supporting our smallest communities

Published 5:32 pm Friday, May 26, 2023

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Summer is a wonderful time to take a drive through our state. In southern Minnesota you can enjoy beautiful lakes, bluffs and small towns. Chances are, you may already live in one of those small towns. Of the 173 communities in south central and southeastern Minnesota that comprise our region, only 13 have populations of more than 10,000. In fact, the majority of our communities have populations of less than 1,000. This is one of the reasons why, at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we have such a focus on supporting our smallest communities. Two ways that we do this is through our Rural Entrepreneurial Ventures (REV) program and our Small Town Grant program, both of which are seeking applications now.

The Rural Entrepreneurial Ventures (REV) program works with a select number of communities under 10,000 for a period of three years on developing a more resilient economic future. Through coaching, resources and connections, SMIF, and our partners at University of Minnesota-Extension and Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, will work directly with communities to help identify effective ways to build support systems for entrepreneurs.

SMIF has worked with 13 REV communities since the launch of the program in 2016 – and they have each developed their own unique approach to economic development. Blue Earth created programs targeting youth retention and business succession. Spring Grove started a Chamber of Commerce. Being part of a program like REV can help your small town leverage more funding for economic development initiatives, attract more businesses, and retain the entrepreneurs that you already have. Towns that have active economic development staff (either of their own or through a contract with CEDA), and have created or would like to create a Community Foundation, are especially well-position to engage in this program.

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If you are interested in jumpstarting your economy through the REV program, submit a Letter of Interest by June 12. Visit smifoundation.org/rev for more information and contact Pam Bishop, Vice President of Economic Development, at pamb@smifoundation.org or 507-214-7013 with questions. We are grateful to Compeer Financial for their support of this program.

Another way that SMIF supports small towns is through our annual Small Town Grant program, which also focuses on communities under 10,000. SMIF has supported 91 projects that help small communities grow and address challenges since the launch of this program in 2017. 

Like our REV program we acknowledge that each town is unique, so we fund a wide variety of projects through this grant: In Byron, the public schools are creating a kitchen teaching space to encourage the preparation of healthy meals; in Fairmont the opera house is adding cultural events that pair with their shows to make a more welcoming experience for everyone in the community; in Winnebago, the City is creating a promotional video to encourage people to move there. 

To apply for the Small Town Grant program visit smifoundation.org/smalltowngrant and apply by June 26. We are grateful to Paul Johnson’s family, Amy De Jong, Paula Rehder and Scott Johnson, for their support of this program.

In addition to the open programs mentioned above, SMIF also invests in small towns through its Paint the Town Grant program (which opens each year in the winter) and its Community Foundation program. We recently celebrated the addition of Pine Island as one of our Community Foundations, bringing our total up to 31. 

These volunteer-led foundations invest in their communities through local projects and programs.

If you live in one of our many small towns in southern Minnesota, I hope you will consider applying for one of the programs listed above. 

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