Each month EDA Director Jack Geller writes a commentary on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.
The Measure of a Community
Even before President Obama took the oath of office in January two things were becoming very clear. The first was that there was that he was going to propose a very large and costly stimulus package; and second was that there was going to be significant disagreement on the size, function and structure of such a package. And now looking back several months later, it is obvious that both have come true.
Right from the very beginning disagreement erupted as to how exactly the term "stimulus" was going to be defined; as one congressman's stimulus quickly became another congressman's definition of excessive spending. But now that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has passed, and funds have begun to flow to a variety of federal agencies as well as the states, new areas of disagreement and contentiousness have emerged that quite frankly, I didn't see coming at all.
For example, in North Carolina the mayors of Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro have publicly chastised Governor Bev Purdue for using some of the stimulus funding to repair and reconstruct several miles of highway throughout rural North Carolina. Their argument was simply that it makes no sense to repair a road that will only carry 5,000 cars per day, when there are roads that need upgrading throughout North Carolina's cities that carry 50,000 cars per day. And in Missouri, the mayor of St. Louis took to the public airways stating that Governor Matt Blunt's decision to use some of the stimulus money to replace a failing bridge in rural Missouri is actually illegal. Again, the basis for his argument was that the stimulus was designed to address the needs of communities that are economically distressed. Obviously the mayor defines "economically-distressed" exclusively as urban blight, regardless of the fact that there are many counties throughout rural Missouri where median family incomes are well below those in St. Louis County.
So what gives with these big city mayors? Now that the economy has turned south are we at the cusp of a new rural-urban conflict for scarce resources? Well... it's hard to say, but to be honest, we certainly have witnessed some similar, albeit more subtle signs right here in Minnesota. For example, even before the economy took a dramatic turn south there were multiple efforts to skew the funding formula that dispenses the funds collected by the state gas tax more towards the metro areas. Sure it's true that urban roadways carry much higher traffic counts than those found in rural areas, but let's not forget that the vast majority of our paved road miles (more than 70%) are scattered throughout the rural Minnesota. So whenever public officials suggest that infrastructure resources need to be distributed based upon per capita formulas, recognize that is typically a subtle way of ensuring that those resources direct themselves more toward urban centers and away from rural communities.
Or recall that during the last budget crisis in 2003 Local Government Aid (or LGA) to cities and counties was significantly reduced, creating budgetary distress throughout most if not all rural communities. At the same time it was proposed that many suburban communities that were not needy enough to receive any such LGA should have their State Transit Aid proportionately reduced, thereby ensuring that all Minnesota communities participated equally in this belt-tightening exercise. So what happened? Well in the end the LGA cuts were enacted and the idea of proportionately reducing transit aid quietly melted away.
I've often made the case; in fact some have suggested that I have made a career of reminding our metro colleagues of the interconnectedness of our rural and urban places. If you ever had the opportunity to mark a dollar bill and watch how it moves throughout our regional economy you'd know what I mean. Our metro communities benefit from a strong rural economy as much as our rural residents benefit from a strong metro economy. There is but one Minnesota and we are all in it together; but when times get tough it is often too easy to lose sight of that reality.
If it's true that you only see the real measure of a person during times of stress and crisis, the same may be true for communities as well. As the belt-tightening continues and resources become scarce watch closely how various communities seek to address their fiscal shortfalls. Do they close ranks, eat their seed corn, abandon collaborative efforts and take the "every community for themselves" approach. Or are they open and seek out new ways of doing business and collaborative opportunities. Do they creatively engage their neighbors and work to ensure that future opportunities are not lost? For one thing is certain, while the fiscal storm clouds are currently dark and circling, you can rest assured the sun will emerge sooner or later. And when the fiscal tension eases you will find that that those communities that sought the more open approach will be better poised for growth and to take advantage of opportunities in the coming years.
Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org