Role of broadband in bringing Koochiching County “back from brink of demographic doom”

MinnPost recently ran a story on the diminishing population in Koochiching County…

In the last 35 years, Koochiching County lost an estimated 4,845 people — more than a quarter of its 1980 population. In the next 35 years, it could lose nearly as many, according to new population projections from the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

Koochiching County isn’t alone. More than half of Minnesota counties are projected to lose population through 2050, based on calculations by Minnesota State Demographic Center. Most of them are in rural parts of the state, especially parts of northeastern, central, southeast and southwestern Minnesota. Meanwhile the seven-county Twin Cities metro area is projected to see the fastest growth, about 27 percent between 2015 and 2050.

The article outlines the efforts to reverse the trend – through diversification and attracting residents – by calling out to former residents who went away (perhaps for college) and might be persuaded to return. They are working on databases of former residents and using touch points like high school graduation to reach them.

The article doesn’t focus on the role of broadband – but it comes up – most prominently in the main story of one resident who returned…

RaeAnne Conat, 36, grew up among the pines, lakes and rivers of Koochiching County … Six years ago, she moved back to Koochiching County (population: less than 13,000), looking to be closer to family. There, she started Swanky Sweet Pea, a boutique that makes bath bombs, salts and soaps that are sold to thousands of retailers across the U.S. With the help of the Internet, Conat has grown the company from a small storefront in International Falls to a manufacturing facility in nearby Ranier with several full-time employees in the last half-decade.

I heard an interesting comment the other day – used to be the economic core communities were on the coasts, then by the rail roads. Now it seems like if you can get online you can make your own economic core community.

Bemidji MN innovates and reinvents with focus on future and a little fiber

Yesterday I went with the Blandin team and the Iron Range Broadband Communities to Bemidji to talk about innovation and reinvention. The meeting wasn’t all about broadband – but I wanted to share notes – because it was a great opportunity for attending communities to learn from a community that very intentionally set goals and met them. Part of that was getting and using broadband but to a larger degree it was about getting the community to take continued and renewing responsibility for the community future.

The day started with a presentation from Jim Benson (former Bemidji State University president) on how Greater Bemidji planned from their future. The created a vision of what they wanted to be and then worked toward it. They began with a meeting to figure out their expertise, passion and hopes. Leaders stepped up at the meeting and they have been meeting monthly for 15 years.

One lesson was the importance of language and intentionality. One quick example is that they wanted to work on a 4-land highway from the Twin Cities to Bemidji – not a highway to the Cities. Also and at least as important is the continued effort. They meet goals and set new ones – which keeps the motion forward.

We heard from a few folks who have worked on efforts in the community to spur innovation, invention and entrepreneurship:

Bemidji TEDx
They held first event in April (2017). Limited to 100 attendees but livestream viewers were up to 650. Learned that the most curious people are often the more involved in a community so TEDx has been a way to gather and cultivate curious people. They will be releasing videos in June. (There’s apparently one on broadband in rural communities and I’m looking forward to that!!)

Gig Gamers
Gaming has been a way to really pound the heck out the gig access. They held an event (sponsored by Paul Bunyan) where 28 teams participated. It got the attention of very techie people. Builds local techie skills. This year 23 people applied for internships at Paul Bunyan this year – based on recognition from the gaming event. Previously they had not been such a hot spot for interns.

The idea of a gaming event seemed crazy but the folks in charge approved whole heartedly and now it’s made an impact.

Launch Pad – Coworking space

There are 35 coworkers in the space. Rural coworking is rare – but internationally it’s big. Transplants to Bemidji made the transition easily. It’s a place for meetings. It saves people from isolation. It provides resources and motivation.

Used Million cups as a model to create a weekly meeting for entrepreneur that suits Bemidji. They have 35-50 people come each week.


Bemidji hosted a hackfest to bring techies together with a problem to solve. They had 9 teams. At night there was a game design challenge. Kids loved that! The next day was a more traditional hackfest.

PCs for People

They distribute refurbished computers. Working with Blandin, they have been able to bring computers to rural communities. Sometimes those computers go to households, maybe a public computer center, key nonprofits or used a rewards to get people to participation in digital inclusion training or other efforts.

GigaZone – Steve Howard from Paul Bunyan
Steve talked about the power of gig economy from the provider perspective. It has been an investment for the company (and a big one at that) but they are happy with their decision to invest.

They have found some ways to be the economy of fiber optic infrastructure work?

  • Economies of scale
  • Reduced transit costs
  • Reduced backhaul costs (DWDM)

He had some advice for how to attract a rural broadband provider?

  • Get data and do a survey – map the results!
  • Economic development staff and community champions
  • Identify needs
  • Identify how much money people are willing to pay
  • Map the results and get them in front of the providers.
  • Be responsive when communicating with providers
  • Consider grant funding – offer to help get letters of support and assist with applications
  • Be polite but professionally persistent

We ended the tour with a stop at Bemidji Brewing to hear about how the story of how those owners decided to move to Bemidji to start their brewery. They actively looked at communities all over Minnesota. Part of the decision was based on the “up north” feel of the area but support from the community was important as well.

Home grown technology-spurred innovation: Live.Give.Save – the FitBit for finances

Our friends at Red Wing Ignite are celebrating a local win …

Last week four southern Minnesota entrepreneurs pitched their businesses to judges at the second annual Ignite Cup business competition. The winner, Susan Sorensen Langer, founder of Live.Give.Save., will go on to be an automatic semi-finalist at Minnesota Cup, the nation’s largest startup business competition. Live.Give.Save. is located in Red Wing and is a member of Red Wing Ignite.  The other businesses participating were Thaddeus Medical Systems, How to Babysit and Rad-Path.  The Ignite Cup is a way to encourage southern Minnesota entrepreneurs to take the next step. It is a collaboration of community builders, including Red Wing Ignite, Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF).

Here’s a little bit more about Live.Give.Save …

Live.Give.Save. calls itself the “Fitbit” of personal finance. Its mobile-first technology enables people to spend wisely, save for a secure future and help others in need without changing behavior.  Live.Give.Save seeks to address the problem that 62 percent of Americans don’t have an emergency savings for a $1,000 hospital visit or $500 car repair and the 50 percent of Americans not saving for retirement.

And their take on how valuable it is to have infrastructure around to support good ideas …

“We appreciate the great partnerships which enable events at Red Wing Ignite to take place,” said Pam Bishop, Vice President of Economic Development. “Events like the Ignite Cup and Minnesota Cup greatly benefit our work of economic development; the energy and innovation our region’s entrepreneurs provide are crucial to regional vitality.  “Winning the Ignite Cup, earning a spot as a semi-finalist at the prized MN Cup, blew a big burst of wind in our sails,” said Langer, founder of Live.Give.Save. “The exposure alone is immense. Much like Shark Tank, just being a presenter (at MN Cup) offers tremendous opportunity to connect with much-needed resources. Being part of Red Wing Ignite in 2015 was the best business decision I made.”

Usually when I talk about infrastructure I mean broadband and Red Wing has plenty with the partnership with HBC. But this heads up from Red Wing Ignite is a reminder that ideas aren’t made from broadband alone, Ideas need support with marketing, training, tech support, financial acumen and sometimes just a little cheer leading!

Cybersecurity Colloquium May 18 in Sartell

I thought this might be of interest to some – either to attend or to try to replicate in your area…

The House Small Business Committee recently held a hearing on the devastating effects cybersecurity incidents have on small businesses.  Some statistics that were reported include:

  • 60% of small companies close within six months of a cyberattack
  • 71% of cyberattacks occurred in companies with fewer than 100 employees in 2012
  • $32,000 was the average cost of a cyberattack in 2014

On May 18 you will have the opportunity to hear from experts on ways to protect yourself and your customers from cyberattacks at the Cybersecurity Colloquium in Sartell, MN.

Learn more and register at

“Entrepreneurs on Tap” series to connect small Iron Range businesses

I wanted to share for businesses on the Iron Range that might be interested – also as an idea for economic developers in other areas…

Small Iron Range businesses will learn about technology and social media strategies that can help grow business at a Thursday, May 11 forum at Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

“Entrepreneurs on Tap” is the first of at least three small business forums to be scheduled by the “Recharge the Range” Small Business Strategies action group.

The 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. forum, titled “Technology & Social Media to grow your business,” features a panel discussion led by Anna Anderson of Art Unlimited in Angora.

Three successful small businesses, represented by Mike Larson of Kondos Outdoors in Ely, Karin Woodman of 24hr Bookkeeper in Hibbing and RaeAnne Conat of Swanky Sweet Pea in International Falls, will be panelists.

The forum is an initiative stemming from four large “Recharge the Range” forums held in 2016.

“Cultivating and growing networks of like-minded small business owners is critical to our region and was a major need expressed in the Recharge the Range forums,” said Shawn Wellnitz, Entrepreneur Fund chief executive officer and a Recharge the Range Small Business Strategies action group host. “It’s also important to highlight the success stories at this event, so that other small business owners and entrepreneurs see what is possible in the region.”

Three primary themes aimed at helping small Iron Range businesses emerged from the large Recharge the Range forums:

– Strengthen and expand entrepreneur networks.
– Create and communicate a new narrative about entrepreneurs on the Iron Range.
– Connect and improve direct resources for entrepreneurs.

It’s hoped that up to 60 small business owners will attend.

“The Iron Range has a host of talented small business owners and innovative people,” said Wellnitz. “Connecting them with other business owners, resource providers, and fostering their growth is a critical first step with this event.”

Register for Entrepreneurs on Tap.


How can the Twin Cities become smart cities?

MinnPost recently an editorial from Mike O’Leary from  Ernst & Young LLP. He offers a three-pronged approach to becoming smart…


Big data is a term frequently thrown around when it comes to cities. But it’s much more than a buzzword. Big data allows government entities to take a granular look at their populations’ demands and behavioral patterns. As real-time data become more easily accessible through new data and analytics tools, governments are becoming more adaptable to meet their populations’ needs and more resilient against shocks, such as widespread disease or large-scale cyber attacks.

I would challenge governments to take this a step further by increasing their use of predictive models and behavioral approaches to policy to anticipate the needs of growing cities to become more proactive. Take transportation as an example. Data can allow government to predict commuter behaviors should autonomous buses become commonplace. If the predictive behavior looks positive, governments can make the decision to move forward with funding and create pro-autonomous bus policies.


One key question for corporations in the Twin Cities is how to use smart assets to drive superior return on investment. Smarter infrastructure, both physical and social, is a key component for smart cities. The real estate and construction industries have a key opportunity to optimize physical assets for new technology that could revolutionize the way businesses manage assets. As an example, smart buildings equipped with the latest technology have the ability to detect and respond in real time to occupancy, environmental and operational changes. Real-time data on usage and temperature, and the ability to respond to changing conditions, can allow for reduced operational costs and greater energy efficiency.


The sweet spot for entrepreneurs in the smart landscape is using new technologies to transform how citizens engage with their city. They are asking themselves better questions, such as: How do commuters move around the Twin Cities? Where are the epicenters of work in our cities? How are our residents spending their leisure time? Their ability to identify gaps in the market will continue to drive new commercial opportunities in Minneapolis and St. Paul. A prevalent example that comes to mind is the growth of ridesharing companies that derived from the transportation needs of those living in the city. We will continue to rely on entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers to identify the latest needs of city dwellers and innovate to meet the changing citizen demands.

Mark Erickson (RS Fiber) on the NPR Rural Life on how fiber retains youth (or calls them back)

The Call In: Rural Life is a NPR show based on phone calls from folks in rural areas. The host mentioned that challenges that come up on a regular basis include: broadband, healthcare and education. Last weekend they spoke to a retired teacher to Minnesota’s own Mark Erickson from RS Fiber.

The teacher spoke about the difficulty of keeping students in a rural area once they graduate. Mark chimed in with Renville and Sibley Counties’ use of fiber to encourage students to stay. He offers an explanation of how or why people in the area can afford to invest in broadband…

ERICKSON: We formed a cooperative, and the subscribers to our network are the owners. So let me give you an example. To build a fiber-optic network and connect people in towns, the cost per home or per business is about $2,500. To build that network and connect the farms, it’s about $10,000, about the cost of a used pickup.

Now, the people in this area felt that those kinds of per home, per farm investments are OK because what the Internet can do for education and health care is amazing. We just feel it’s an investment that the phone companies and cable companies are unable to make. So the folks in this very conservative part of Minnesota decided that they wanted to put their tax dollars on the line and enable this network.

And he mentions the reward of investment…

ERICKSON: Well, it helps the present businesses. We’ve had several here say that hooking up to the fiber network has increased their ability to do business greatly. But we also saw this as something for the future, like you allude to. We expect our children to leave our communities when they graduate from high school and go to college and learn about life. But they have to have a reason to return. And the millennials today, and those who follow, will find it difficult to come back to a community that doesn’t offer the kind of Internet connection that they want. What we have our fingers crossed for, and it looks pretty good, we believe we’ve attracted a four-year medical school to our area, which will change the face of our communities in a very positive way for a long, long time, if it happens. And that was a direct result of the fiber network.