The Nicollet County Board of Commissioners focused, during its June 11 meeting, on an update regarding the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, a regional developmental and philanthropic organization serving 20 counties.
The Foundation was founded in 1986 and continues to promote growth in early childhood care, economic development, and community vitality in the areas it serves. Jennifer Nelson, Communications and Development Associate, gave a comprehensive update regarding recent happenings across various SMIF projects.
“Overall, we spend about $5 million in any given year back into the region,” said Nelson. “That’s really split between our three focus areas.”
Nelson discussed Grandma’s Gourmets as an example of the SMIF’s economic development aid. This local food provider was the recipient of the 2017 and 2018 Good Food Award and got its start pahrtially through SMIF’s technical assistance program. Grandma’s Gourmets’ founding entrepreneur began attending SMIF’s Feast Festival at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center and connected with several buyers who agreed to carry her products. One such vendor is the Just Food Co-Op in Northfield.
“Her Bloody Mary Pickles are really good, in case anyone wants to know,” said Nelson.
Grandma’s Gourmet also received a loan the SMIF provided in partnership with the Albert Lea Development Agency.
“In any given year we do about thirty loans, and 90% of those are in partnership with another financial institution,” said Nelson. “We look for partners because we do only have a finite amount of dollars we invest in that area.”
Another of the SMIF’s areas of development includes early childhood care.
“We spend about $1.8 million on our early childhood work [per year],” said Nelson. “If I presented here back in 2013, that number would have been closer to about 1.2 million. So we continue to increase the resources we have available for our early childhood work.”
The SMIF partners with the Abdo and Capstone publishing companies to provide books for early literacy programs, and also offers courses for childcare providers. For this work, they receive allocations from the state, as well as Mayo and Blue Cross Blue Shield Insurance.
Nicollet County Commissioner Terry Morrow noted his observation that the childcare shortage is a growing topic of conversation and asked Nelson what she believes are the barriers that prevent people from entering or staying within the childcare profession. Nelson stated that most childcare professionals tend to be older or on the verge of retiring and that few younger professionals are appearing to swell the ranks.
“I hate picking on millennials, but there’s not a lot of millennials who want to take those jobs,” she said, citing low pay and long hours as discouraging factors. The SMIF provides childcare training that doubles as certification for the continuing education credits needed to keep childcare licenses. Nelson expressed the hope that this will provide incentive for younger childcare professionals.
County Road 14
Nelson’s update was followed by County Administrator Ryan Krosch’s administration report. This included an agenda addition regarding disaster funding for County Road 14, which is in need of repair after recent flooding washed away part of the hillside. Krosch provided an update on negotiations with Gale-Tec Engineering of Mankato.
“We need to take action on it fairly quickly,” said Krosch, adding that the federal highway administration has agreed to waive federal bidding requirements so that the county can enter professional service contracts with greater speed.
Gale-Tec will provide the project’s geotechnical engineering, in order to reinforce the hillside and prevent further erosion. Their consultation fee is covered under the federal disaster funding.
Krosch moved that the county engineer be approved to enter into a professional services contract with Gale-Tech and the motion passed unanimously.