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Minnesotans hear almost daily that our state has a budget surplus of around $17 billion. But if there are significant unmet needs and increasing disparities, do we truly have a surplus that large?

Many may not be aware that our rural communities are in the midst of accelerating atrophy. This quiet shift began decades ago but post-pandemic, the challenges are now urgent. About one in four Minnesotans lives in the rural areas that support our shared, statewide passions for fishing, camping and enjoying the outdoors. Today, too many of these communities and residents are struggling. They are undervalued, underfunded, unseen and untapped. Without thoughtful intervention, greater Minnesota will become increasingly isolated and hollowed out. It will become lesser Minnesota.

The evidence?

More than 84% of our communities have a population of under 5,000 but investment from state, federal, private and philanthropic sources no longer meet rural needs. According to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, local government aid (LGA) has fallen 38% below the rate of inflation since 2009, eroding the critical state aid that balances municipal tax bases to ensure all Minnesotans have access to core services.

Nationally we know that less than 10% of Small Business Administration loans go to nonmetropolitan businesses. Of the $1.8 billion in philanthropic dollars given to Minnesota organizations in 2019, only 9% went to communities under 20,000 people.

Workforce challenges impact all corners of the state. Northeastern Minnesota, for example, has two jobs open for every available worker, along with higher poverty and a lower median income than the state average — a situation even worse for Native residents. While there are more than three dozen colleges and universities in the metro area, there are only five in the recently merged Minnesota North College (MNC) system to serve an area the size of the state of Maryland. For rural residents and employers, colleges are critical access points like hospitals.

What do those statistics mean in real life, to the people and towns I see each day on my drive to work through Minnesota's Arrowhead? To the town of Warba, population 172, it means their restaurant, laundromat and motel have closed. It means they struggled for years with basic phone service, broadband access and enforcing ordinances due to a lack of city staff. But they are fighting the slide toward lesser Minnesota tooth and nail, applying for fix-up grants and supporting their innovative local charter school.

As one of the few private foundations in the country devoted exclusively to rural needs, the Blandin Foundation has restructured our operations to better align with these modern realities and our founder's vision. Charles Blandin believed in focusing on the needs of the worker, whose prosperity and dignity enabled the rich and unique culture that makes Minnesota the incredible place it is.

The connection of rural work to statewide prosperity is more relevant today than ever. Rural areas are home to the manufacturing, energy, agriculture and tourism sectors that help drive the state's economy. As the host of these industries and a steward of millions of acres of Minnesota's natural resources, rural communities have a critical role to play in planning for the state's energy transition. Moreover, if we are serious about creating sustainable energy models and resilient workforce structures, we have a legal imperative to engage the partnership of sovereign Tribal Nations at the outset.

Along with our rural allies throughout the state, we are working hard to bring transformational initiatives to life but we cannot do it alone. Just like our notorious fondness for potlucks, we each need to bring something to the table. Doing so requires changes in policies that have left rural areas behind and funding decisions about LGA, aid formulas, housing, child care and workforce that recognize our futures are deeply intertwined.

As a member of Gov. Tim Walz's Council on Economic Expansion, I took to heart the goal of improving prosperity for all Minnesotans. Our final report emphasized that "Minnesota can no longer assume what we currently do or have tried in the past will change outcomes."

Now is the time to reset rural and change statewide outcomes that make us all greater.

Tuleah Palmer is CEO and president, Blandin Foundation.