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Talking Points: Area governments have no choice but to work together

There were a not a lot of upbeat tones in the voices of the people gathered at the Prairie Inn in Morris on Thursday night.

They were about 20 county, city, township, university and school district officials, and what they were discussing wasn't the best pieces of news to ever hit the community: A flagging population base, ever-dwindling resources, a sluggish economy, and a warning that while things might not get any worse, they won't likely be getting better soon.

There was enough doom and gloom wafting about the banquet hall that you half expected the participants to lunge for the nearby bar with the intensity of a Depression-era bank run.

But despite the bad news, both past, present and future, the group seemed almost upbeat. The fact that 20 people got together to talk about the challenges ahead might be a sign that they all care too much about the places they call home that none plans to live through the bad times sitting down and stewing.

The folks came together at the invitation of Stevens FORWARD!, a county-wide initiative started about two years ago to identify areas to improve the county and rally support behind the 13 "Destiny Drivers" crafted to get the jobs done.

One of the Destiny Drivers is adopting a Statement of Interdependence, through which the governmental entities in the county would pledge to work together and share resources, whenever possible, to be more efficient and cost-effective. The group was brought together to review the statement and to hear from Toby Madden, Regional Economist for the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis.

Madden prefaced his comments by noting that the opinions were his and not those of the Federal Reserve. But there's not much doubt most of what he had to say about rural economies and intergovernmental change would elicit nods from his colleagues.

In summary, Madden said that Western Minnesota probably hasn't been hit as hard by the financial crisis of the last two years as other areas, such as Michigan. The agriculture and manufacturing bases in the area were strong enough to offer stability, and the area didn't benefit as much from the housing boom as other areas, meaning that the housing market bust wasn't as pronounced here.

But that's not to pretend the economic aftershocks won't be felt here. Surveys done by the Federal Reserve indicate that business leaders are decidedly pessimistic about the future in all areas except agriculture, and even that bright spot isn't much more than a glimmer.

Wages are flat and not many business owners say they expect to add employees, Madden said.

Governments are strapped, too. The state is dealing with massive deficits and government officials are just coming to the conclusion they can no longer do business as usual and can't tax or borrow their way through tough times. That likely means cuts. As in staffing cuts.

Minnesota has the advantage of heavy investment, in a relative sense, in education, health care and infrastructure, a sensible decision set in motion by the state's leaders a half century ago that has the state at or near the top nationally in high school graduates, college graduation rates and per-capita personal income.

"We're reaping the dividends of previous investments," Madden said. "We are different here, but we can't just sit back and rest on that."

There won't likely be wholesale changes in the basic structure of government around the state, he said, which means that those leaders will have to figure out a new way to operate under the current model. That sounds a lot like what Stevens FORWARD! is trying to foster.

"You're not being forced to work together, from a legal perspective," Madden told the 20 leaders seated before him. "But from an economic reality perspective, you will have to work together or suffer the consequences."

Stevens County Coordinator Jim Thoreen said that during his days in Moorhead, working for Clay County, there could just as well have been a "Berlin Wall" dividing it and Fargo, N.D., just across the Red River - neither community wanted any part of working together. But about five or six years ago, area agencies concluded that they could work better by creating a regional dispatch center out of the several scattered around the region. And they got it done.

Whether the new, centralized dispatch is an improvement, Thoreen couldn't say, "but I do know there's a good feeling about that. What seemed impossible 20 years ago is now a reality."