BEMIDJI - Businesses in the Bemidji area need a better educated work force and more access to broadband Internet connections.

That’s what Minnesota legislator turned business advocate Dan Dorman said he took away from a fact-finding meeting Friday at Beltrami Electric Cooperative. Dorman is executive director of Greater Minnesota Partnership, a lobbying group that seeks to level the playing field in making sure state government dollars and programs help the rural areas of Minnesota as well as the metro area. 

Friday’s meeting was one of several  Greater Minnesota is hosting statewide as it tries to gauge which policy changes communities want them to advocate for at the state Capitol in St. Paul. Business leaders, city officials, state legislators and Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) employees were all in attendance Friday to listen and voice their opinions on economic issues facing the area.

Improving the area’s work force was a prime topic. Attendees had ideas on training local workers, as well as making Bemidji a more attractive place for people to come work.

Dave Hengel heads Greater Bemidji, a local-area advocacy and economic development group. Hengel recently gained a spot on the board of the Greater Minnesota Partnership when Greater Bemidji became a member organization. He said young people come to study at a number of colleges around Bemidji, but they tend not to stay in the area after graduation.

“As much as I love rural Minnesota, and certainly (the) Bemidji area, it can be an acquired taste,” Hengel said. “We export our talent.”

He later added Minnesota was resting on its laurels in that it was known for being pro-education yet was reducing the money it routed toward school districts and colleges in the state. “That cannot continue, for us to be successful,” he said.

The other end of the work force age spectrum was also addressed. Kathy Carney, a regional operations manager with DEED, stressed the need to keep older, seasoned workers engaged in the work force as the average general population ages.

“I’m old,” she began, getting a laugh from the attendees. “Much of the people that are my age have such amounts of talent… they don’t want to work full time, (but) they want to give back to their community.”

Carney suggested possibly incentivizing companies to keep older workers on staff.

Part of Greater Minnesota’s solution for improving quality of life in rural areas and attracting more workers involves getting broadband Internet coverage in areas outside of the Twin Cities. Dorman spoke of relaxing the restrictions on state funding to assist with installing more fiber optic cables and possibly altering state law to allow cities to offer broadband service as a utility.

State Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, cautioned generally that pro-business initiatives from the state government require funding that originates in tax dollars. As with recent tax increases at the state level, it takes a commitment from the people who want the money those new taxes generate, he said.

“We had the political will to raise a couple billion dollars in taxes here,” he said. “Do we have that political will again? Can we get support from the greater Minnesota area if we want to do that, to spend money in greater Minnesota?”

Dorman spoke of another difficulty facing rural advocates: rural Minnesota is losing representation in St. Paul to redistricting as the population shifts, he said. It will become more necessary for both GOP legislators and DFLers from rural areas to work together as that happens, he said.

“It’s going to… be more important in the future to put those partisan labels aside and work together on common issues,” he said.

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