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Working for small towns


Fri, Apr 20th, 2001
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Southeast Minnesota Development CorporationBy Bonnie Prinsen
Monday, April 21, 2001

America continues to hold onto a Norman Rockwell image of small towns. Picture Mayberry: a quiet but attractive main street, friendly and prosperous citizens, Andy and Opie heading off hand-in-hand to the fishin’ hole. In the media, everyone from rock stars to politicians extol the virtues of small town life.

But, as with many idealistic visions, there’s a different reality beneath. The truth is that most small towns are struggling to stay alive, faced with a deteriorating farm economy and competition with big-city malls.

Interestingly, the problem is not about money. There is a surprising amount of money available to small towns and businesses in the forms of grants and loans. The problem is that it’s often impossible for the average citizen to navigate their way through the suffocating paperwork required to access that money.

Enter Southeastern Minnesota Development Corporation (SEMDC). Now completing its 15th year of service, SEMDC, a private, non-profit, member-supported agency, works in a variety of ways to assist businesses and communities in Dodge, Fillmore, Houston, Mower, Steele and Winona counties.

With offices located in Rushford, SEMDC acts as a conduit, working to channel local, state and federal dollars to the businesses and communities for revitalization. The money is generally in the form of a loan. In addition to arranging financing, SEMDC offers counseling, technical support, and grant writing services.“SEMDC’s job is connecting the communities and residents to resources to help them solve their own problems," says Linda Grover, Community Development Specialist with SEMDC.

During its history, SEMDC has grown to a staff of eight full-time professionals, who this past year brought 1.8 million dollars in grants and loans to area municipalities, and another 2.5 million dollars in loans to businesses. SEMDC provides service by placing development specialists in the member communities so that support and expertise is readily available.

Business Development Coordinator, Mark Thein, has worked recently with the city of Harmony on a re-development project. Thein found Harmony to be a "great community to work in" because of the "progressive" attitude.

Thein was also instrumental in putting together the funding and financial package that allowed the LaCrosse-McCormick company to purchase the All-Phase Arena in Spring Grove. The long term benefit of such a package is "really for the whole community," according to Thein, since LaCrosse/McCormick will bring 20 new, well-paying jobs to the area.

The most visible evidence of SEMDC’s work has been the rehabilitation of historic buildings and mainstreets in the area. The focus of their mission changed slightly in recent years when housing emerged as a major problem in many communities. SEMDC has always assisted in housing rehabilitation, but is now in the new construction business, having lined up the construction of five new homes in Houston, and a proposal for twenty-nine new homes in Plainview.

Most regions of Minnesota continue to have regional government, but several years ago residents in this area began to see regional government as simply another layer of government that could be eliminated; thus, regional government was abolished in southeastern Minnesota about twenty years ago. That left a need for some entity to serve as a regional "clearinghouse" for resources. SEMDC evolved to fill that need.

At the helm of SEMDC since its beginning is Executive Director, Terry Erickson. It is fitting, given the history of the region, that Erickson says one of his primary duties is "to wipe out bureaucracy and red tape wherever I find it." Erickson is motivated by his desire to "empower people”, and according to his staff, he’s good at it.

"He provides a nurturing environment for the staff," says Linda Grover. "He tries to make sure the staff’s personal needs are met." Grover has been with SEMDC for twelve years, and uses "really unique" to describe Erickson’s leadership style.

"I honestly can’t say enough good things about him," she adds.

After growing up in Faribault, Erickson attended college at Winona State, earning a degree in sociology and political science. He and his wife and son still make their home in Winona. A daughter is away at college.

Erickson strongly believes in the "strength in numbers" doctrine. A line in SEMDC’s recently released Annual Report says, "We are much stronger as a group than as individuals."

Small communities (under 5,000) "don’t do so well" competing against larger municipalities for resources, according to Erickson. One of his goals is to establish a legislative presence for this region by getting communities to unite with other communities in working toward common goals.

"Our biggest challenge is to find ways communities can identify with each other as a whole, to work together as a larger group," he says.

So while SEMDC continues to apply practical, realistic solutions to the problems faced by small towns, its staff and membership are led by an idealistic vision. The mission statement states that SEMDC is "dedicated to the economic, social, ecological, and spiritual well being of our communities."

As SEMDC’s leader, Terry Erickson embodies that ideal. "He just has this huge vision of the way things can be," says Grover.

By Bonnie Prinsen

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