Minnesota’s metro and rural mayors are putting partisan politics aside and joining together to build trusted relationships — learning from and supporting each other to find common ground on issues that will drive a prosperous Minnesota.

The goal of Minnesota Mayors Together is to change the negative narrative of “urban vs. rural” to one of working together as a cohesive region with shared values. Our goal is to establish trust that will lead to shared action.

Minnesota Mayors Together is an offshoot of the state’s nationally recognized Regional Council of Mayors, formed in 2004 as a collaborative group for 55 mayors from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The group gathers monthly to network and take action on issues related to building healthy communities.

The idea for Minnesota Mayors Together originated in a Regional Council of Mayors meeting nearly two years ago when members voiced frustration with gridlock in the state legislature. One of the factors the group felt contributed to gridlock was the idea of an urban-rural divide being used to foster various political agendas.

That discussion led to a separate initiative where metro mayors would travel to different regions of the state to talk and build bridges between urban and rural interests. The Urban Land Institute provides administrative and leadership support to Minnesota Mayors Together.

Discovering common ground

Since it launched in 2017, Minnesota Mayors Together has held collaborative meetings in Bemidji, Duluth, Willmar, Owatonna and Edina. The events typically include small group gatherings with between 15 to 20 mayors, hosted by the local mayor, along with another mayor co-chair. Meetings focus on communication, creating new relationships and learning about strengths and challenges facing participating cities.

Views vary on the extent of the urban-rural divide.

We believe there is a disparity between the metro and greater or rural Minnesota but have learned a lot of the concerns in the metro are similar to those in rural Minnesota.

The metro mayors involved have learned how vulnerable the economy is in greater Minnesota. The precarious nature of rural economies is more pronounced amid a broader trend of urbanization, and many states across the country face similar rural-urban divides.

Urban areas tend to have a more diverse economy, while rural areas are more dependent on their existing business base and are hit hard if a major employer downsizes or closes.

Discussions have led to a deeper understanding of the common issues of urban and rural areas and a deeper understanding of the challenges each face.

Aligning interests

One of the direct benefits of the initiative is the opportunity to talk about common issues and share experiences.

The group gives members the chance to sit down in smaller groups to see they are not alone, share their thoughts and get feedback from others.

For example, the city of Willmar is exploring ways to change one of its funding mechanisms that would increase revenue to pay for street improvements. The topic came up at a meeting and one of the metro mayors had made the same change about three years ago.

The metro mayor was able to provide specific recommendations of what worked, and more importantly, how his community reacted to the new method of paying for streets. The discussion has allowed Willmar to avoid some potential pitfalls experienced by the other city.

The group hopes that its collaboration will bring progress in the legislature on common issues. Shared priorities include affordable housing, transportation investment, workforce issues, child care and social cohesion.

Access to affordable daycare is a problem throughout the state that creates a variety of ripple effects, including a family’s ability to afford housing and labor availability. Shortage of workers is a common problem throughout the state with unemployment levels that are hovering at 2.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Minnesota Mayors Together recently received a Bush Foundation grant to help the group develop a sustainable model and determine shared priorities. We hope joining urban and rural mayors together to meet with legislators will create a much louder voice.

Marv Calvin is the mayor of Willmar. Caren Dewar is the executive director of the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota.

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy

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