In 2002, the Star Tribune published a remarkable series of 12 articles about life and times in “Our Town: Olivia,” an iconic community 100 miles west of the Twin Cities. This summer Olivia celebrated the 50th anniversary of its claim to fame as Minnesota’s “Corn Capital.”
Minnesota, like all of America, was in recession 15 years ago. Corn prices were near an all-time low, and places like Olivia were hurting. The Star Tribune series discovered a populace that was proud and plucky, but worried about a way of life described then as simultaneously “sturdy and fragile.”
As Minnesota once again confronts a growing rural-metro divide and socioeconomic disparities in greater Minnesota, we at the research organization Growth & Justice decided to revisit the people and places of that series, seeking lessons and advice for policymakers and candidates for office in 2018 and beyond.
We found resilience and optimism still flourishing. Quite a few things (corn prices; a new public hospital; prospering local bioscience and seed research companies) are improved since 2002. Some conditions (continued slight population loss; regional educational disparities based on race and income slightly worse than the Twin Cities; lack of amenities in arts, culture and recreation) need attention.
We heard plenty of specific policy advice. Here’s the gist:
Do not slash our state and federal safety net for health care and economic security, or for local government aid.
Invest in our basic public infrastructure and improve our region’s internet connectivity, so we can compete on a level field.
Help us provide all our kids more resources so they can keep up with metro kids and find direct pathways to local careers.
Be smarter and more careful with environmental regulations that impose costs on farmers, land owners and local governments.
Increase philanthropic and public funding for arts, recreational and cultural amenities so our town can be a place where more young people want to live.
Give us a little more respect for our way of life, more credit for what we contribute to this state and for how hard we work to improve our own fortunes.
Despite President Donald Trump’s winning margin of 36 percentage points in Renville County last year (almost 30 percentage points more than Mitt Romney’s margin over former President Barack Obama in 2012), we detected little appetite for specific public policies Trump has pushed since taking office.
We did not hear anyone call for shrinking the government services and state-federal investments on which the local economy depends, or deep resentment of the Twin Cities or foreigners. We did not detect any sentiment for sending local migrant workers back to Mexico or Texas, for restricting further immigration, or for preventing undocumented workers from getting driver’s licenses.
No doubt such opinions and prejudices exist. But we agree with many analysts who say that the 2016 election outcome was about a whole lot of things — shaking things up in Washington, for instance, or Hillary Clinton’s unique disconnect with rural voters — rather than a specific policy agenda.
And our more important point is that the mostly constructive refrain we heard in Olivia actually echoes across greater Minnesota. We hear these same points repeatedly from business associations, rural regional economic development commissions, and nonprofits and community organizations.
Both sides of the tracks
Perhaps the success of people like Olivia native daughter Val Rodriguez helps explain the lack of immigration resentment in “our town.” In the 2002 series, when she was a high-school senior, Rodriguez was photographed for an article headlined “Diversity Comes to the Countryside.” Reporter Chuck Haga found some evidence of racist behavior, but mostly goodwill from the better angels in town.
As Rodriguez, now 33, slowly drives around her childhood haunts, the memories flow: the aroma of cooking corn wafting from the cannery that closed long ago; a scary area where other migrant Latinos were crammed into a few tiny shacks; and how on most mornings she truly enjoyed walking into Olivia’s warm and welcoming public schools.
Rodriguez, whose grandparents once labored hoeing weeds in the fields, pointed to the little house where she grew up, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks from the more affluent southern half of town. She stopped for a photo at BOLD High School (an acronym for Bird Island, Olivia and Lake Lillian School District), where she excelled in the classroom and on the dance team.
“I never felt ostracized, or excluded or disliked,” she said. “I do remember one of my friends telling me that her parents had told her that I was ‘different.’ But I remember that friend, and others, telling me that they saw no difference.”
Rodriguez metaphorically has crossed those tracks, earning a degree from St. Cloud State University, moving up the professional ladder to become a mental health counselor. She now works at a shelter for displaced and troubled young people in Willmar, 26 miles away.
“I know I’m where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “And that’s helping make sure kids are safe, and giving them structure and consistency and accountability for their actions.”
As she starts her own family, with a 15-month-old son and engaged to be married next year, Rodriguez is strongly considering moving back to her birthplace. Her advice, to ensure growth and more equitable outcomes in Olivia and elsewhere: “There needs to be more things for all of our youth to do, things like YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, recreation centers, helping them find good careers and jobs.”
Faith and science
In 2002, Carlotta and John Eischens were featured for heroic work providing after-school enrichment and moral support to dozens of mostly low-income kids, including Rodriguez and her brothers. The Eischenses are still hard at it and run a neat little dual operation, their nonprofit Christian Community Outreach Center, which is connected to the main morning gathering spot, the Master’s Coffee Shop.
“It has been a struggle, ever since we started in 1999,” Carlotta Eischens says. “But like anything, you can make it go if you have a vision and are passionate about it.” They say they could use more philanthropic and public support.
One of the first sources of funding for the CCOC was the Southwest Initiative Foundation, which is now hard at work on an ambitious new 10-year project, dubbed “Grow Our Own,” that will promote and fund cradle-to-career support and intervention for the entire southwest Minnesota region. Support from the local agribusiness sector has been strong for this initiative.
Agribusiness and biotech research are still very much a mainstay of Olivia’s economy. They are housed in about 15 local firms or branch offices of international corporations. A classic example of the positive effect of a specialized industry cluster, these companies comprise “the biggest concentration of seed research in the world,” according to Bob Thurston, one of Olivia’s founding entrepreneurs in the seed sector, and also a magnanimous local philanthropist.
As he showed off the high-tech space where thousands of seed varieties are stored at Thurston Genetics, a company he sold, Thurston notes that Renville County not only leads the state perennially in corn production, but plays a huge part in international biotechnology’s advancements in feeding the world.
Thurston loves the Twin Cities but is concerned about some elitist urban attitudes. He’s particularly worried about stereotypes embraced by many urban elites about agribusiness, resulting in uninformed opposition to genetic modification of crops, he says, which has long been Olivia’s lifeblood.
“There is a sense here that people in the metro area don’t understand this industry and what our lives are like, ” he says.
The challenge of place-making
While other small towns across Minnesota are protesting the loss of key health services, Olivia’s gleaming new county-owned RC Hospital and Clinic is expanding services and spawning spin-off development, including a new drugstore and a second lodging facility in town.
On a tour led by enthusiastic CEO Nathan Blad, we saw state-of-the-art “telehealth” technology that links local doctors by video to other experts as they treat patients or perform surgeries, and a new robotic-surgery unit. In 2002, the hospital employed about 65 people and had about $9 million in revenue. Today, it employs about 130 on a $42 million budget.
A recent state survey found Renville County ranked 84th out of 87 counties in overall health. There are too many bars and convenience stores in rural Minnesota, Blad says, and not enough health and fitness centers and biking trails. He’s very worried about big cuts in the federal and state health care safety net.
“The alternatives so far to Obamacare are so awful, they would be catastrophic for us,” Blad says.
Anchor employers like the hospital and the seed companies likely will keep Olivia stable. But younger folks we talked to want Olivia to bear down on making this rather prosaic locale (the town lacks a river or lake or notable geographic feature) more attractive to young families and millennials. Rodriguez, for instance, wishes the county had built a proposed biking path connecting Olivia to Bird Island and that the city would spruce up the park in her old neighborhood.
This new mind-set around “place-making” permeates a recent “DevelopMN” document published by the Minnesota Association of Development Organizations, composed of the 10 regional development commissions in greater Minnesota.
“We have all kinds of space and some great ideas coming forward in this region,” says Scott Tedrick, the thoughtful and articulate young editor of the Renville County Register. He took us on a tour that included the new Bird Island Cultural Centre and an old house that’s being transformed into housing for artists-in-residence.
All these efforts and new thinking, it appears to us, add up to more confidence than Olivia had in 2002. Mayor Suzanne Hilgert, who has become a key leader of two statewide associations of cities, says she and others are trying to transform Olivia into more of a regional center, and to build out more attractions and amenities.
But that’s a challenge when local government aid from the state amounts to about $600,000 less, inflation-adjusted, than the city received in 2002.
“We have to put eggs in a lot of different baskets and hope something hatches,” Hilgert says. “We need to concentrate resources here.”
Chuck Brown is a policy fellow for Growth & Justice (a research and advocacy organization) and is a lifelong resident of Olivia who has served on its City Council. Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice.