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Column: Communities benefit by focusing on assets

Too often communities focus on what they don't have. And it is true that many community leaders struggle due to insufficient funding, limited resources and inadequate infrastructure.

But it is also true that if communities were to dwell only on these deficits, it's likely nothing would ever get done.

This is why Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation developed a program we call the Community Growth Initiative. Our CGI process helps a city, a cluster of smaller cities or a county to focus on what communities do have — their assets.

The CGI involves an asset-based community development model to identify a community's strengths and resources. These assets include individual talent, businesses, local schools, non-profit agencies, fraternal and civic associations, financial institutions, physical and more. Our goal is to facilitate a planning process, allowing each community to identify what makes it unique and then collectively strategize about how to build on indigenous assets to enhance community vitality.

Currently, 51 communities in our 20-county region have gone through the CGI process with projects primarily focused on early childhood education or entrepreneurial activity. This means they have mapped their community's assets, identified a leadership team, sought public opinion for projects, which then leads to a $20,000 grant from SMIF to implement their highest-ranking project ideas.

We are excited about the many impactful projects that have resulted from our CGI work in area communities.

For example, in 2008 the city of Lanesboro identified tourism and local foods resources as community assets. This led to the development of a community-supported online marketplace for local goods, which eventually became a downtown store front. This past year, Lanesboro Local was sold and is now a for-profit business, offering locally grown and produced food, handmade crafts, and local art.

Red Wing's CGI focused on its entrepreneurs. Community leaders continue to expand upon the initial CGI grant that supported a phone app to link visitors with the community and a new nonprofit promoting the Red Wing bluffs.

Their work has now grown into numerous other projects. Red Wing is now a member of the US Ignite Partnership, which pilots ultra-high-speed broadband projects throughout the U.S. to spur entrepreneurship and innovation. As part of the designation, community leaders opened a business incubator-Red Wing Ignite. The project received an additional $20,000 Incentive Grant from SMIF to help with the costs of the incubator, aimed at attracting early stage technology businesses to the community.

In Fairmont, SMIF's facilitation assisted in creating an early childhood initiative. Established in 2003, the Fairmont ECI continues to be a very active group. They have joined forces with other youth organizations in the Fairmont area to create their own non-profit, Youth First, to continue to raise funds and write grants. The Fairmont ECI saw a need to reach families with children ages 3-5 that might otherwise be overlooked.

They created a home visitor position to support those families and have continued to fund it for several years, in part through SMIF's home visiting grant program. The Fairmont team is also actively working on PreK-Grade 3 alignment effort with in their public and parochial schools.

The Fairmont early childhood initiative recently created a Kindergarten summer camp for children entering kindergarten with little or no preschool experience and received an additional incentive grant from SMIF to help fund the program. Last year the camp reached just over 100 children, better preparing them for school and life.

These communities were able to take on local issues once they focused on the assets they already had. It is our experience that the leaders and citizens who take part in the community growth and early childhood initiative process continue to come together to tackle concerns that arise locally.

Every community in our region has a unique set of challenges and assets-through our initiative programs, our aim is to empower citizens to discover and address both. Contact us to find out what SMIF can help you do for your community.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. You can reach me at 507-455-3215 or