If there’s one big picture takeaway from the coronavirus pandemic and the nation’s response, it’s that the crisis has exacerbated many social problems and added a sense of urgency to efforts across the country to address them.
In terms of rural areas, these challenges are no less dire. During a conference call Monday, Sept. 28, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, representatives of Region 5 Development Commission — an economic support district that covers central Minnesota — spoke on a litany of issues that are hampering rural communities as they struggle to remain afloat during the pandemic.
Rural broadband. Workforce development. Housing. Social unrest. Small business support. Agriculture. Environmentalism and natural resource stewardship. Infrastructure. These are all familiar challenges for smaller rural communities in central Minnesota, but they’ve gained new dimensions during a pandemic that killed over 200,000 Americans and sent the economy into the worst tailspin in a century.
Just as there are many problems, there are many answers, but one topic continually raised its head during the discussion — the need for a second coronavirus relief bill, with the kind of funding and structural heft to bankroll struggling institutions across the state. Klobuchar said she was heading back to Washington, D.C., to discuss just that and anticipated a bill of that nature would come eventually. She was joined by a number of small town lawmakers and representatives of Region 5, who advocated for more federal intervention during this time of crisis.
In short, they said, local institutions need federal funding and they need it fast.
“It just shows how much we need to get this done right away,” Klobuchar said of future economic relief initiatives, particularly in terms of beefing up rural broadband during school closures and work-from-home employment. “It's very, very hard. … I want to make sure the funding that we do get — when we get it and I believe that will happen eventually, additional funding — that we make sure that goes to rural areas, as well as metro areas.”
Multiple speakers from small town communities agreed, stating they need funding to alleviate stresses on everything from roadway infrastructure projects, to mental health counseling, to environmental cleanup projects along the Mississippi watershed.
“As you probably know, small cities can be really hard hit. Sometimes we don’t have the tax base and things like that,” said David Anderson, mayor of Sebeka and Wadena County veterans service officer.
“An infrastructure bill would be really great,” said Randy Finn, the tribal development director with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, who said his community is looking at upwards of $2 million in looming infrastructure costs. “If we can get some help that way, that would be absolutely wonderful for small cities.”
And it hasn’t been easy to fill the gap, noted Cheryal Hills, executive director of the Region 5 Development Commission, who said state agencies, economic development organizations, and local municipalities have been scrambling to find alternative sources of funding while the economy has plummeted. Currently, 27 million Americans are still leaning on unemployment benefits, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, while the number peaked over 40 million in late May.
“Can we bond? Can we do whatever we can do for broadband?” Hills said. “We’re waiting. There’s a bit of urgency and a lot of my job is ‘Deep breath. There’s a lot of great programs, we just have to activate them.’ … So, it's trying to be together and find ways to
help out along the way.”
There’s also been the issue of social unrest tied to racial injustice and police brutality, said Hills, who pointed at demographic shifts toward a browner, more diverse United States in the years to come. So far, she said, local organizations and companies have struggled to attract the kind of outside workers to replace and expand the current labor force.
“There have been dramatic impacts that social unrest (have caused) and compounded COVID issues as well and it has an economic impact,” Hills said. “We know organizations really need to understand how to welcome a workforce that would be reflective of the changing demographics and, if you look at stats, central Minnesota has been struggling. Companies understand how they play a role in the rebuilding of our community as we rebuild the workforce.”