The latest Minnesota Monthly highlights the peril and the hope for rural communities…
Even in areas that weren’t hit hardest financially, changing times have made it hard for small communities to retain talented young people—who have migrated to cities—and, with them, diversity, opportunity, culture, and access to technology. To top it off, natural calamities (such as blizzards, flooding, and tornadoes) continue to shake rural communities’ literal foundations—a 1997 flood decimated East Grand Forks, and a 1998 St. Peter tornado caused $120 million in property damage. There are challenges in rural America that won’t be solved overnight.
But in the small towns of greater Minnesota, many things are also going right. Innovation can come from within, and here we have seen models of ongoing reinvention.
The article highlights broadband work on the Iron Range…
Like many rural communities across greater Minnesota, a brighter future in the Iron Range is tied to entrepreneurial growth afforded by broadband internet access—which varies based upon infrastructure, population, and investment.
“In the countryside around Ely and Hibbing, the broadband service pretty much disappears,” says Bill Coleman of St. Paul-based firm Community Technology Advisors (CTA). “That’s a challenge. Living there can be pretty attractive—if there’s connectivity. There’s a strong correlation in areas that are connected attracting younger workers and families.”
CTA runs feasibility studies to assess options for broadband access by area. Public versus private investment varies, and generally speaking, the fewer homes per mile, the greater the likelihood that public money will be necessary.
“Every community is different,” Coleman says, pointing out that while communities on the western end of the Iron Range have excellent connectivity, and east Lake and Cook counties offer further success stories, other communities have broadband access but see spotty services and rising prices. One encouraging sign is Ten Below Coworking space in Ely, which offers the town’s first fiberoptic broadband connection funded by a $15,000 Blandin Foundation grant.
And in Red Wing…
Red Wing, a southern town of about 16,500 has become known over the past century-plus as a business center for mills, factories, a once-bustling port, and, more recently, the shoes that bear the community’s name. And today, it’s showing the way for communities in rural Minnesota that aspire to be tech hubs.
Hiawatha Broadband Communications provides Red Wing with one of the state’s best broadband networks, which led to the 2013 creation of Red Wing Ignite. The business accelerator hosts events to connect tech entrepreneurs with advisors and investors and has launchd education initiatives that foster science and technology talent in young people.
“The key to innovation in greater Minnesota is collaboration,” says Ignite executive director Neela Mollgaard. “We can’t work in silos. We need to work together across organizational and city boundaries, and put the entrepreneur and business first.”
Red Wing was recently the only rural town to join the national US Ignite’s innovation-focused national network of about 20 Smart Gigabit Communities, alongside San Francisco, Austin, and the entire state of Utah. “This is so farmers in Goodhue County can use precision agriculture etechnology to improve their crop yields,” Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote in a message of congratulations to Red Wing Ignite. “Business owners will have the best technology to compete not just in the state but across the globe.”