The Driftless area is defined by steep bluffs, spring fed streams, and deep woods. It is a working landscape of farms, pastures, woodlands, and towns. The Minnesota Driftless Hiking Trail is a group of local residents working to create a trail that can share the region at a human scale.
A new University of Minnesota program is working to make big waves in small places. The Empowering Small Minnesota Communities program (ESMC) will funnel a substantial amount of U of M capacity into small communities across the state. Momentum for the new program is coming from changes at a federal level.
“This is basically the first time this many resources have been flooding into communities since ‘The New Deal,'" says Andi Sutton, of U of M Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP.) Sutton is referring to two recent, landmark laws. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the largest reinvestment in our country’s infrastructure in generations and the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate/energy-related investment in US history.
ESMC wants to make sure Minnesota’s small communities are a part of that investment.
“We know through our work at RSDP that many small communities don't have the staff or the capacity needed to absorb the load involved in taking advantage of funding opportunities like these. And yet there’s an abundance of ideas and opportunities waiting to be supported in small communities! That's where we come in.”
The initiative is structured to put small Minnesota communities in the driver-seat, focusing on populations under 15,000, with special attention being given to populations under 5,000. Selected communities will receive support to advance projects and position them toward receiving federal, state, and local funds. Project ideas can fall under many different areas, including: water, parks, trails, tourism, buildings, emergency & weather readiness, energy efficiency, economic & cultural vitality, and housing.
“It's a chance to dream with the support of experienced researchers and student capacity. They will help walk communities through a process to turn those dreams into concrete, fundable realities,” says Sutton.
Opening the door to small communities
Five separate groups from the U of M have joined forces under the new program: the Center for Transportation Studies, U of M Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, Minnesota Design Center, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
“Within this powerful ensemble, RSDP serves as the doorway to rural Minnesota,” says Kathy Draeger, Statewide Director for RSDP. Draeger is also a proud resident of rural Clinton, a town in western Minnesota with a population under 400 people.
“There’s been a lot of loss in my hometown. We've lost the pharmacy and the cafe. We're struggling to keep our care center open. We’ll soon lose the elementary school in town. People feel downhearted,” says Draeger. “So I know first hand as someone living in a rural community, sometimes you need a fresh perspective and support in envisioning what can be.”
Draeger feels this program is essential not only to small communities, but to maintaining the well-being of broader Minnesota.
“Small communities are essential to how our state and society functions. They’re often at the heart of the systems we depend on, like food production, and increasingly energy production. We neglect rural communities at our own peril.”
Clearing the trail ahead
Already underway, ESMC has three pilot projects across the state that are testing the intake and engagement process. These pilots are helping the ESMC team adapt and improve the program as it unfolds, leading the way for future applicants. The Minnesota Driftless Hiking Trail is one such project, a proposed hundred-mile walking trail across Southern Minnesota. The prospective corridor runs between Chatfield, MN and the Mississippi River.
Marty Walsh with the Minnesota Driftless Hiking Trail says the organization is incredibly excited about working with ESMC to develop their vision.
“Our idea for a hiking trail is really something that blurs the line between community assets and infrastructure,” he says. “Being in small rural communities, we can't generally rely on the local government to have the excess capacity to perform some of the more technical needs like legal research or developing maps. ESMC really ties all of that up into a neat package, while also expanding the awareness and knowledge about our project.”
“This is a group of community members who have come together with an extraordinary vision,” says Sutton. “The proposed trail runs through the area’s beautiful landscapes but also some of the smaller local communities too. The idea is to provide access to the region’s natural assets and unique ecology and also support the local economies of these small communities.”
Submissions for this first official round of the program are due on February 14 and an introductory webinar recording is available now. Sutton encourages any interested parties to reach out to their regional ESMC team members to get started.
“There is no wrong door here. Reach out to us and we will work with you to apply,” she says.