Southeast Minnesota explores how to make hay in the emerging creative economy

A Cloudy Economic Picture for Rural Minnesota

Red Wing Iron Works

The McKnight Foundation commissioned writer Jay Walljasper to do a series of reports looking at the prospects and challenges in Minnesota’s 80 counties outside the metro area. According to Jay, "a cloudy economic picture emerges in recent figures from the Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development. There are more than two job seekers for every position open — with 45 percent of those jobs part-time. The median wage for all jobs is $11 an hour, while DEED’s cost-of-living research shows $14.50 is necessary to support a family in Southeast. Three Southeast counties — Winona, Mower and Fillmore — have poverty rates above the state average. Meanwhile, broadband connections are spotty in some places and firms face steep hurdles in attracting young talent. 

The Solution?

The key to success in the changing economy of the 21st century “is for a community to be specialized — have something they are known for,” explains Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design and a national authority in the new field of community resilience. “And not just low wages or soybeans, which leaves you vulnerable if a decision in some far-off city closes a factory or changes the price of a crop. Small towns need help gaining the confidence to go in a new direction and stand out — that’s what you need to thrive.”

Red Wing Community & Red Wing Ignite

"...Red Wing’s key assets: the river, the bluffs, downtown’s central role in the community, proximity to the Twin Cities, the elegant city-owned Sheldon Theater, a strong historic preservation ethic, a growing arts and handicrafts community, unique locally-owned businesses, growing ethnic diversity as seen by three Mexican groceries, low rent in handsome old buildings and, most of all, people embracing a big vision for the community.

What Red Wing Ignite is Doing about it

The Red Wing Ignite Innovation Center is a locally grown initiative partnering with US Ignite, a project of the National Science Foundation and the White House for making sure the next generation of Internet applications creates wider public benefits. In addition to state-of-the-art Gigabit Internet service reaching all households in town by the end of the year, Red Wing Ignite has launched a business accelerator connecting entrepreneurs with investors, mentors, and regional and national partners. They also host regular educational and networking events as well providing offices and meeting venues at a new co-working space in the former Red Wing Shoe headquarters downtown.

Additionally, Red Wing enjoys high levels of civic involvement, as seen in Live Healthy Red Wing, a coalition of 10 organizations promoting better health through projects like walking and biking guides, safe routes to school plans, community gardens, school nutrition programs and improvements to crosswalks and park trails. “People are drawn to big cities that are healthy,” says coordinator Michelle Leise, “and the same goes for smaller towns where you can walk, bike, garden and connect with people.”

John Becker muses how Red Wing could look in a few years: “The schools are full, there’s a strong sense of community and purpose, there are plenty of public gathering places, the city is more walkable and bikeable with lots of business opportunities, lots of independently-owned businesses, not a lot of franchises and large parking lots, everyone knows their neighbors.”

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