The State as a Model Employer

Our public workforce should reflect our state’s diversity, but Minnesota is not living up to this standard.  Research shows that 10 percent of Minnesota’s civilian noninstitutionalized population has a disability, but only a little more than three percent of state public employees are disabled. The state’s disabled workforce has been shrinking for 15 years—now is the time to reverse the trend.

In response to recent criticism by disability advocates, Governor Mark Dayton issued an executive order last week that urges state agencies to hire more workers with disabilities. The order outlines a goal to double the amount of Minnesota’s public employees with disabilities to at least 7 percent by August 2018.

Under Dayton’s order, all Executive Branch Agencies must work to hire more people with disabilities by designing better recruitment strategies, updating hiring tools, training managers and human resource personnel, and submitting quarterly progress reports.

As the largest employer in Minnesota, the state is responsible for offering employment opportunities to all of its citizens. The talents of individuals with disabilities cannot be overlooked.

Governor Dayton’s executive order will hopefully inspire the state to embrace its potential as a model employer. As more people with disabilities gain careers as public employees of the state, businesses and organizations will learn the importance of equal employment.

Commenting on the reason behind Minnesota’s failure to hire more workers with disabilities, Governor Dayton told MPR, “Part of it is just the lack of attention to this as a priority.”

In order to successfully prioritize equality throughout all of Minnesota’s economic landscape, the state government must create an accessible, welcoming environment for disabled persons through workplace accommodations, staff education, and community awareness training.

Proactive recruitment is necessary to inform the disability community about available public positions. State agencies should partner with disability advocacy organizations to reach out to potential employees. Minnesota’s government must also work to improve the accessibility of job applications and the hiring process.

The Governor’s executive order was only the first step in transforming the state into a model employer. Communities must support the government as it implements improvements to open employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities. With our state leaders on board, all of Minnesota’s employers will learn to embrace equality.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Workers' Rights 

Minnesota’s Stagnant Broadband “Expansion”

In 2008, Minnesota set a goal to become one of the top five states for advanced broadband speeds by 2015; unfortunately, Minnesota has fallen to 23rd in the nation. Why are we failing at solving this problem?

Education is the most powerful motivating factor for expanding internet capabilities throughout the state, so that’s where we’ll start.

More and more education will happen using the internet and online learning tools. Teachers will still be in our schools, no doubt about that; however, if schools and teachers want to stay ahead of the curve, they will accept that curriculum must be supported by online resources.

But what use is online learning for students and communities with limited access to those resources?

Comcast has recently announced an extension to their Internet Essentials program, which assists low-income families with students to access high-speed internet. The program determines which families are eligible by the student’s ability to access free or reduced-price lunch at school. The extension allows those families with previous debts to Comcast to be forgiven and will focus more intensely “on schools where 100 percent of students receive a free lunch through the National School Lunch Program.”

Comcast has been plagued by bad press lately, however and, without a committed philanthropic mission, this relatively small expense could be seen as attempting to earn positive headlines in a troubled time.

What is truly needed is the approach that Connect Minnesota’s Broadband Task Force (BBTF) has been taking for the last six years. The BBTF’s goal is to connect all Minnesotans to some sort of broadband service by next year, 2015. In their 2013 Report, the BBTF outlined that their efforts are simply not adequate for the size of the project in question.

The situation for students is dire because although “most schools are able to offer students at least limited internet access at school,” many of the “rural area have no such access to do their online work at home.” This fact, paired with the fact that 30 percent of low-income families in the Twin Cities lack access, spells out the dismal situation for Minnesota’s broadband capabilities.

All of the top states growing in broadband availability are investing in the infrastructure to achieve wide-spread availability. Much like electricity and phone lines, the internet has already proven to be capable of much more than imagined at its conception, which is why availability remains absolutely vital.

A child’s potential should not be determined by their access to the internet, Minnesota has a responsibility to her citizens to ensure that they are competitive and prosperous.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Rural Minnesota  Technology 

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Beginner’s Luck at Farmers Market

We celebrate Minnesota farmers markets abundance in August and Colleen Landkamer, state director of USDA Rural Development programs for Minnesota, reminds us that USDA is promoting farmers markets all across the country. That being the case, there is no time like the present to note an extraordinary find at the St. Paul Farmers Market. A new food industry sector may be developing right before our eyes.

Mark Christopher, who with wife Sue has Maple Leaf Orchard across the river at Spring Valley, Wisconsin was selling plump, bright red cherries at the market. Since I've never cooked with locally grown cherries before, I had to give them a try. Best cherry pie I've ever tasted; best pie I've ever baked.

A call to the orchard suggested there might have been luck involved. The cherries can be pretty tart at the beginning of the season and become juicy and sweet by the end of July-early August pickings. Your recipes can't anticipate how much sugar or corn starch may be needed to produce baking perfection.

This tasty treat has relevance to area economic development. There just might be a cherry industry developing in Minnesota like that in Door County (Wis.) and in Michigan.

University of Minnesota scientists and individual plant breeders have had great success in developing apples over the years, and their work with cold-hearty grapes has created a successful and rapidly growing wine industry as well. Less well-known is their work with cherries, apricots and plums that date back to the early 1940s based on varieties available that can be traced to release dates.

Here's what makes the tasty, not-so-sour sour cherries from the St. Paul Farmers Market so promising. Christopher said the cherry variety he raises was largely developed by Bill Eubank who has a River Falls area orchard. Someone from the large, local Bailey Nurseries at Newport bought cherries from Christopher at the farmers market and came back the following week to ask what they were and where did he get them.

Christopher put the Baileys together with Eubank. They have teamed to start producing the trees for orchards and backyards, trademarked as part of Bailey's First Edition collection of plants and called the Sweet Cherry Pie cherry tree.

The talent has come together. That isn't beginner's luck.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Agriculture  Business Growth 

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Unbound Opportunity Thanks to Open Data in Minneapolis

Due to a recent policy passed by the Minneapolis city council, macro-data about city processes and day-to-day operations will become available online. MinnPost’s Bill Lindeke best characterizes open data as “a movement that combines government transparency, bottom-up crowdsourcing, and high-tech geekery into an unpredictable stew of numbers.”

Open data will be collected from a large variety of city departments and services and has the potential to transform Minneapolis for the better, long-term.

Crowdsourcing data, which means soliciting a large group of people to contribute thousands (perhaps millions) of seemingly innocuous data bits to show trends and see solutions to problems, is the best possible way to find improvements in the living beast that is the Twin Cities metro area.*

For example, Lindeke gives the brilliant example of requiring taxis and lift car services to log their anonymous GPS data in order to track traffic patterns, speeds and density in the city. This idea could be extremely useful in understanding the evolution of transit in the Twin Cities based in real, hard data, and that’s just one possibility for the strengths of open data.

Bill Bushey, a founder of Open Twin Cities cities in Lindeke’s article that open data “actually enables the city to function more efficiently,” and it could. By understanding the great potential that open data has in bettering innumerable situations, Minneapolis has made an enormous step forward in embracing living technology.

Organizations passionate about issues including health equity, transit development, clean energy and economic trends in particular neighborhoods will find that open data policies are invaluable in moving forward.

Many in the policy world are “nerding” out about the potential data windfall coming our way, and you should be too.

* This sentence was edited for clarity. (Aug 13, 11:39 am)

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Technology  City Management  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Affordable Rent Gap Widening Across Minnesota

Rising rent prices and falling household incomes continue to put the squeeze on housing costs for Minnesotans in the lower income brackets, the Minnesota Housing Partnership found in its annual study for 2014, and the gap between incomes and rental costs are especially acute in rural Minnesota.

Statewide, MHP reseachers found median rent costs have risen 6 percent between the 2000 Census and the five-year estimate for years 2008-2012 factored by the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. In that same time, renter incomes effectively fell 17 percent, creating a 23 percent gap between rental housing costs and renters' incomes.

The gap is widest in Big Stone County, on the South Dakota border, where jobs have opened up with a large power plant nearby and there hasn't been housing and apartment construction to keep pace.The county gap widened to 78 percent since 2000, outdistancing the 50 percent increases in Mower, Carlton and Martin counties.

Only three of Minnesota's 87 counties avoided having the rent to income gap widen since 2000, and those three rural counties are all experiencing outmigration, not a building boom. "A lot of people think the rental-income gap is an urban problem," said Leigh Rosenberg at MHP. "It's a problem everywhere but the biggest gaps are in non-metro counties."  Each county has a different story to tell with some around industrial centers now creating jobs even though housing construction is still lagging coming out of the Great Recessions, she said.

The three exceptions are Marshall County, which has been losing population since 1950; Wilkin County, losing population since 1970; and Stevens County, in decline since 1990. Wilkin and Stevens counties reach peak populations in 1960 while Marshall topped out two decades earlier. In a statement releasing the study, MHP noted that lower income people are at risk of homelessness when rents keep rising and household incomes keep falling behind. "Vulnerable seniors and children, unfortunately, far from immune to homelessness," said Chip Halbach, executive director.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Housing Market 

It’s Time to end the War on Poverty

As every public-spirited Minnesotan knows by now, this year is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. And in true Minnesota style, the year has been marked by thoughtful op-eds, policy studies and public symposia.

For a little perspective, I returned to the book that started it all, Michael Harrington’s, "The Other America: Poverty in the United States." Written in 1962, the book awakened a slumbering post-war American public to the invisible poor. It also inspired JFK, himself moved by the poverty he experienced while campaigning in Appalachian West Virginia, to make the fight against poverty a major policy goal.

In powerful vignettes Harrington introduced post-war Americans to those left behind in urban ghettoes and rural back waters; fellow Americans isolated by old age or mental illness. But according to Harrington, these were not simply random experiences. Poverty in America had become “a culture, an institution, a way of life.”

Re-reading the book, I see a paradox that I failed to notice as an idealistic high school student all those years ago. By elevating the other America to public view, Harrington hoped that the rest of America would be moved to action. Many were—and—are. But lasting change requires both altruism and a strong sense of common interest.

Harrington himself understood this. The other America, he reminds us, was created when poverty as a general condition of urban and rural working people was eliminated. Before the creation of the modern welfare state most laboring people were poor. In post-war America, the majority of working Americans experienced something novel: prosperity.

A socialist, rather than a social worker, Harrington understood that a major assault on poverty would require a revitalized labor movement and political party system. Yet, the core message of his book is an appeal to conscience. “The fate of the poor,” Harrington writes, "hangs on the decisions of the better off.”

Once again, history’s wheel is turning. In this era of low wages and part-time employment, working people are once again experiencing poverty or something close to it, on a mass scale. For millions, the other has become us.

After fifty years, it is time to end the war on poverty. Let’s replace it with language, politics and policies that can win the support of working people—poor and almost poor alike.

Michael Harrington would approve.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Poverty 

New Federal Law for Somali-Americans is a Minnesotan Victory

President Barack Obama is expected to sign a bill that supports a large community in Minnesota. Thanks to the Money Remittances Improvement Act, which was recently approved by the U.S. House and Senate, Somali-Americans will have more freedom to send money overseas to their loved ones.

This money is a lifeline for many Somalis who rely on remittances for their food, housing, clothing, education, and business investments. According to research by Oxfam, money transfers to Somalia account for up to 40% of the country’s economy, with approximately $215 million sent by Somali-Americans annually.

In recent years, strict regulations have threatened this lifeline. Due to complex federal anti-terrorism laws, many U.S. banks refused to work with Somali money transfer operators (MTOs) to avoid the risk of fines from improper transfers.

Minnesotan banks particularly withdrew from partnerships with Somali MTOs after two Minnesotan women were convicted in 2011 of funding al-Shabab, a Somalia-based group linked to Al-Qaeda. Following this incident, banks across Minnesota denied transfers to Somalia—a move that distressed a significant population of the state.

Despite legitimate concerns about money landing in the wrong hands, the regulations effectively barred innocent Somali-Americans from aiding the families who rely on them.

In response, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison sponsored a bill to streamline remittance rules. Once President Obama signs it, the law will reduce banks’ risk, improve transfer oversight and security, cut redundant state and federal bank reviews, and grant the state more enforcement responsibility.

The new legislation will alleviate Somali-Americans across the country from the unfair, inefficient ramifications of anti-terrorism laws. But in a way, the new law is truly a Minnesotan victory.

About one-third of the Somali-American population lives in Minnesota. Recognizing the hardship faced by this valued community, the state and its leadership came together to create a public policy solution.

Minnesotans offered concern, legitimacy, and support to the Somali-American population, which set a respectable example for the rest of the nation. With unity and persistence, Minnesota led the U.S. to a fair resolve, granting freedom to Somali-Americans and providing a lifeline to those in need.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Financial Industry  Personal Finance 

Prospect Park’s Future: A Model for All Neighborhoods

Communities may soon look to Prospect Park, a southeast Minneapolis neighboorhood, as an exemplar in sustainability, accessibility, and communal vibrancy. Prospect Park planners hope to create a diversified, transit-oriented urban center nestled between the Metro Green Line and the University of Minnesota campus.

The Prospect Park East River Improvement Association (PPEPIA) leads the neighborhood’s revitalization efforts with its Prospect Park 2020 project. Built by a coalition of businesses, political leaders, landowners, and community members, a framework for Prospect Park’s future promises great potential.

The project’s vision is to build a “diverse, vibrant, accessible, sustainable, connected, and affordable transit-oriented community.” Goals for the area prioritize heightened efficiency and shared infrastructure, giving special attention to sustainable energy use, reduced carbon emissions, and proficient wastewater disposal.

According to PPEPIA’s report, Prospect Park contains over 60 acres of underutilized property with potential residential growth of 1,500 affordable “live-near-your-work” residential units.

With plans for green roofs, district-wide heating and cooling systems, rainwater gardens, and shared reservoir parking, Prospect Park could increase its density in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner.

Especially exciting is the Green Fourth plan. This design will transform Fourth Street Southeast into a “pedestrian- and bicycle-focused district with wide sidewalks and several public gathering places,” as described by Taylor Nachtigal from Minnesota Daily.

Prospect Park 2020 aims to harness the creative energy from the nearby university by building innovative public spaces, like a science park, and partnering with researchers.

The need for a well-integrated public realm, diverse development, and accessible transit fuels Prospect Park leaders to generate sustainable progress. But these needs are not unique to Prospect Park. Businesses, local governments, and community members in every Twin Cities neighborhood should unite with similar goals.

By kindling relationships between developers, local governments, and neighborhood boards, Minnesotans can improve existing infrastructure in urban districts. If we advocate for sustainability, accessibility, and mixed-use development in our smaller communities, the entire Metro area will achieve its full potential.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: City Management  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Duluth’s Arts and Economic Renaissance

Minnesota has Duluth on the brain, and for good reason. Duluth has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the recent economic upswing and is experiencing a renaissance of involvement in arts, culture, tourism, sustainability, and economic development.

This wide variety of interconnected industries is how a lively metro area is supposed to develop. Duluth’s unemployment rate has dropped to 5.1 percent, over 1 full percentage point under the national average, and, with its quarter of a million residents, is projected to have robust job growth of 35.7 percent over the next 10 years.

Fitger’s Brewhouse is an extraordinary example of the kinds of expansion and innovation that can occur in Duluth’s current growth-based atmosphere. Cultivating burgeoning musical artists such as Trampled by Turtles and Low, as well as ensuring the anchoring of craft beers in Duluth’s new culture, which is the unintended accomplishment of Fitger’s hard work and niche marketing.

Joe Cortright, an economist from Portland, commented to MPR News that “businesses like Fitger's Brewhouse are important because they can help attract other locally-minded businesses.” The stronghold that Fitger’s has built will be invaluable anecdotal evidence for similar entrepreneurs.

Additionally, with the state economy moving forward, more and more Minnesotans are vacationing in or near Duluth, which has boosted its economic development significantly.

The business climate (ranked 64th in the nation) is not the only impressive facet of Duluth’s resurgence in the state. For that, you must look at the arts scene.

The Duluth Playhouse, boasting a resplendent 100-year history, has been revitalized in recent years to put on bigger and bigger shows at its downtown Duluth location and has attracted big name talent to help. The Minnesota Ballet, Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra and NYC guest director, Dorothy Danner are all in collaboration to put on performances of “Les Miserables” to larger and larger audiences.

Indeed, Visit Duluth boasts arts events all year round, producing results state-wide. Conservation Minnesota and Minnesota Citizens for the Arts recently awarded Duluth the “Legacy Destination Award,” for, “embodying the spirit of Minnesota’s great Arts and Outdoor Heritage.”

This model is essential for developing metropolitan areas such as the Twin Ports and proves that growth and development cannot only include business development but arts, culture, and sustainability initiatives.

Photo credit: Mark Schindler, creative commons

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Economic Growth  Minnesota Cities  Arts & Music 

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Celebrating Progress for Minnesota

Thousands of Minnesotans are getting a long overdue raise as the state's first minimum wage increase in nine years goes into effect. The state minimum wage for large employers, at $8.00 per hour starting today, will increase to $9.00 in 2015 and $9.50 in 2016 followed by annual cost of living increases.  This is great news for workers, for businesses and for our economy.  Minnesota 2020 joined members of the Raise the Wage Coalition to celebrate this important step in moving Minnesota forward.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Minnesota Legislature  Minimum Wage 

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