Outstate counties lead state's recovery

Nine of Minnesota's 87 counties have seen their economies recover to prerecession levels, or better.

That puts Minnesota in a stronger recovery than almost anywhere else in the country, led by booming economies in Greater Minnesota.

A new report by the National Association of Counties ranks Minnesota third in the nation in county-level economic recovery. All nine of the counties that have bounced back are outstate: Clay, Marshall, Pennington and Polk in the northwest; Pope, Stevens and Wilkin in west central Minnesota, and Jackson and Murray in the southwest.

Barely 2 percent of U.S. counties have recovered to prerecession levels, according to the association, which evaluated the counties by job recovery, unemployment rates, economic output and home prices.

Jennifer Brooks @stribrooks


City eyes $5 million energy-saving prize

Duluth residents are being asked to change their natural gas and electricity consumption over the next two years, as part of a national competition to earn a $5 million prize.

The city is one of 50 semifinalists selected last week to compete for the Georgetown University Energy Prize. Organizers had to submit a detailed plan to save energy long-term, with commitments from residential groups, governments, businesses and others.

Now, the semifinalists have until December 2016 to reduce their energy consumption in ways that can be copied in other communities.

City Council Vice President Jen Julsrud, who helped lead the initiative, said organizers hope to focus on building community solar gardens and retrofitting the city's older housing stock. If it wins, the city would set up a trust to fund future energy projects.

"I think we have a good shot at it," Julsrud said. "Duluthians are competitive. We like to win."

Pam Louwagie @pamlouwagie

Whiskey creek

Watershed protection program expands

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is steering $9 million to a program that could let Minnesota farmers show the rest of the nation how to keep agricultural runoff out of local watersheds.

Over the past six months, 28 farm operations, working 10,000 acres of land around the Whitewater River, Middle Sauk River, Elm Creek, and Whiskey Creek watersheds, have enrolled in a voluntary certification program that encourages on-farm conservation to protect nearby water sources.

The federal funds will help the state turn the fledgling Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program into a national demonstration project.

Jennifer Brooks @stribrooks