Viewpoint: REV up with tangible community goals

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Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, we know that growth comes from within. In all of our programming we aim to lift up the communities in our region by providing them with resources and a framework for success, but it is the people within our partner communities who ultimately create the future they want to see.

As we seek to increase our involvement in small towns (populations of 5,000 or below), I am excited to see energy building around our new Rural Entrepreneurial Venture program. REV is a unique, long-term commitment that focuses on developing processes and systems for sustainable economic growth in rural communities. In implementing REV we are using a proven-model for economic development from the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.

The goal of the program is to energize entrepreneurs within small towns, and organize leadership to assess current and future needs and build systems that will transform the economy. The towns that go through this process will start to see a more resilient economy with more diverse entrepreneurs, and will develop better resources to support entrepreneurs even when the economy is bad.

Lake City selected

After reviewing applications from small towns across our southern Minnesota region, we selected the following five REV communities that exhibited a readiness to "grow their own" and work towards creating a climate where entrepreneurs will thrive: Blue Earth (Faribault County), Lake City (Wabasha and Goodhue counties), Lanesboro & Spring Valley (Fillmore County), Le Sueur (Le Sueur County), and Spring Grove (Houston County). Our coaches (SMIF staff and partners — Region Nine and University of Minnesota Extension) are committed to working with each of these communities for a three-year period.

We hit the ground running with REV at the beginning of the new year. Our coaches had their first meetings with core leadership teams in each town. Depending on the community, the core leadership teams comprised representatives from chambers of commerce, city council, economic development authorities, local businesses, and other civically-engaged leaders. Each team was provided with a Development Opportunity Profile, which examines the economic trends from their town over the past decade.

There have already been rich discussions from each group as a result of this important first step. In order to create a sustainable plan for the future it is critical to review the opportunities that have led to successful environments for entrepreneurs in the past. In that same vein, the core leadership teams are also discussing the challenges that have historically created barriers for development. We can only plan for tomorrow by learning from the past.

Core leadership

Over the next few months the core leadership teams will also start to identify who the key entrepreneurs are in each town and where "energy areas" exist. These energy areas are pockets of the industrial or business sectors where there is the greatest potential to build upon existing entrepreneurship activity. The teams will also dedicate their time to building capacity and recruiting more people to be actively involved in the REV process.

Change doesn't happen overnight which is why it is extremely important to set tangible goals to keep building momentum. REV communities will be guided by"'push cycles," each lasting several months. At the end of each push cycle, there will be a check in on the status of the goals and action planning for the next cycle.

It may take several years before an entrepreneurial ecosystem is thriving in each community, but even so we anticipate seeing positive change and progress at every stage of these cycles.

Obviously each town has a different set of strengths and challenges, which is why the outcomes of REV will look different in each community. But it is our view that no one knows how to build a future better than the people who live and work in these communities. We look forward to supporting this REV process over the next three years.

Keep an eye on our social media and website for updates on how these communities are progressing.

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