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Dig Deep: Where Is the White Knight for our Small Towns in Rural Minnesota?

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*Dig Deep – Where Is the White Knight in our Small Towns of Minnesota? Pt. 1

Heidi:  You're listening to Dig Deep on Northern Community Radio it's where we pair conservative commentator Chuck Marohn with our liberal commentator Aaron Brown. Thanks for being back you guys. I'm Heidi Holtan.

We had a great time doing a live dig deep our first run at that Itasca Community College last month. And I wanted to revisit some of the things that we talked about there especially a question that was posed to you guys someone who was valiantly looking for the white knight that was going to solve all of our politicalproblems. Has it reached a point where a white knight could come in and save us from our partisan discord. So we're going to in this next series of conversations we're going to kind of take that apart with specifics and so I recently read an article in Minn Post that was all about the town of Bemidji and how images economics are growing because they have a four year university and they kind of got into some of those issues. And you know this is something you guys know about.  Aaron especially because you're at a community college. People probably want a four year university. And what that could bring and so let let's start with that. Could that be the white knight in a town like Hibbing.

Aaron: It's one of those topics that comes up every time I talk about economic diversification in northern Minnesota and the Iron Range and you say well what do we do besides mining for instance the topic that comes up the most often is someone saying Well you know what if we had a four year university somewhere on the range either at Hibbing or somewhere else we would realize this economic benefit from being a college town you know because you associate college towns like Bemidji and Duluth as having this vibrant young energy you know bands will stop and play at your bars. You know all of this is exciting sideline activity related to being in college. And you keep all the young people with energy from leaving right. And then the people from your town would go there instead of Duluth or Minneapolis or somewhere else. That's the premise of having a four year college. And now first of all I have to separate my position into two things higher education and the local local higher education options are vital to me. They're vital to communities having a place where you can retrain where you can affordably access entry level higher education.

I teach at a community college obviously that's what we do and the towns of northern Minnesota have had community or technical colleges for a very long time. We just passed 100 years a couple of years ago at Hibbing Community College. So these are older now older institutions that have been ingrained in the in the town you know where the I think the number three or four employer in town have been Community College behind the mine and or I should say behind the hospital and the mine.

So these are these are big deals in the community but on the other hand this notion of can we plop a four year university with all of its buildings and field houses and all of you know millions hundreds of millions of dollars of investment is what a university would be and attract enough people to dramatically shape the future of a town. And this is where I've had to always pour a little bit of cold water on it just because you know we've had options for four year education on the range for a long time for a time you could get a four year degree through Bemidji State or UMD or others through the community colleges. It was a program that is used still is used in forms but it was never like tear down the roof here or tear off the roof where we're going to blow this place up with all of these new students it was never super popular didn't dramatically alter our enrollment figures for instance that would be one measure of this. And so to say that there's demand especially in the highly political environment of state no state either the state university system or the or the University of Minnesota system Minnesota State or University of Minnesota. We're unique in a way or unlike some states like Wisconsin we have to I shouldn't say competing but to higher education systems very large very expensive college education systems and the politics of trying to get a new university when three or four somewhat nearby universities are gonna complain and say you don't want to take on our students by starting a new. It's very complicated. And I tend to find that focusing on what we have and realizing what a college does really which is educated workforce and educate people so that they can elevate themselves from their current social class or situation. If you can focus on that that's really what you can do and we have institutions that can do that.

They're the ones that we should focus on is where I end up on that.

Chuck: Let me pour like a harsher Cold water can

Aaron: I have lukewarm hotel pool water.

Chuck: Yeah well because I will first of all start by just affirming the notion that college towns are fantastic. I am privileged in a position where I get to travel around the country and speak at a lot of universities about cities and planning and about you know places that prosper. I wind up in a lot of college towns and they're fantastic places in my organization Strong Towns. We do annually a strongest town contest where we identify the best places in the country that are doing great things. Inevitably when we get to the Final Four two or three of them are college towns. So I think and here's the kind of sharp edge you know cold water. I think that if you are a successful well-educated middle class upper middle class person you look at your life story and attribute education to that to that success and you have a tendency to impose that on everybody else if everybody else just followed this path that I was on. If every other city just experienced this the way that I did they'd have the similar results. And I think that is I think in harsher circles they call that an elitist viewpoint. I would call it a rather myopic viewpoint

Aaron: The Survivors Bias.

Chuck: Thank you for the enlightened term.

Aaron: I learned that at college.

Chuck:I think what it is is it's taking one data point and imposing it on things.

I think we could talk about Grand Rapids here or we could talk about my hometown of Brainerd or we could talk about Bemidji and we could say why do those educational experiences have a positive impact on the community. But nowhere near what we see in a place like Fargo or one of our strongest town finalists Kent Ohio or South Bend Ohio where Notre Dame has kind of changed their role now. Let me focus on South Bend. Notre Dame is in arguably one of the greatest universities in North America. It's a place that people strive to go. It's tough to get in. They've got a great academic challenges but if you've ever been to South Bend if you'd spend ten years ago 20 years ago if you like why in the world is this university here this town is dying. There's whole neighborhoods there tearing down. This place is not doing well over the last decade decade and a half. Notre Dame and South Bend have made a very conscious effort of working really closely together. How do we get the university projected out into the neighborhoods of the community. How do we get our professors living here locally. How do we get instead of people commuting in and just driving through the city. How do we actually get them here and involved in not just living here but involved in the neighborhood work and in the charities and in the institutions in government in volunteer organizations. How do we get the students instead of meeting in the place on campus. How do we get them out to the restaurants and the shops and all this.

How do we instead of having a dorm where they just are sequestered on campus. How do we get them living in apartments and stuff in that city. All of a sudden South Bend has become this crazy great place. It really has transformed in a very short period of time into an amazing amazing place.

Heidi:  That's Chuck Marohn. HE'S OUR CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR For dig deep our podcast and on air at KAXE/KBXE and Heidi Holtan. We've also got Aaron Brown liberal commentator Chuck is telling us more about what a four year university can do for a town.

Chuck: We see the same kind of thing happening in Fargo where NDSU has intentionally instead of building on campus actually bought buildings in the core downtown and put professors and teachers and whole programs in weird funky neighborhoods where there aren't huge parking lots. There's not. You know they've run commuter buses back and forth from the campus to the downtown downtown Fargo is a huge success story. It's amazing place. Let's look at Grand Rapids. Let's look at Brainerd. Let's look at Bemidji. All of them have put hundreds of millions of dollars into those facilities. But they're isolated off from the community. Their campuses you have to drive to there's no natural interaction with the commute there there's no way to get people from the Central College in Brainerd into the downtown without them getting into their car and opting not to drive to the Baxter strip but to drive downtown. And that just makes them like everybody else. The other is there's no natural like interaction between the two.

So I think if if we recognize that universities do contribute a lot we also have to recognize that there's a connection there. And here's the cool thing. You can start to create a lot of the connections that a university creates without a university. I mean we have artistic people in every community. We have you know people who want to do intellectual things in every community. Where are they. Let's get them together. Let's get them connected to people. Let's start doing this stuff. Towns like ours can do this. Now unlike a starter scale essentially work up to a university. The idea like dropping the university and has a solution is like rushing to the you know the penultimate. And I think we'd be sorely disappointed. So what would that look like. How do you get people together. What are those things that could make a town different. Well OK I think if if we wanted to start like on the range right and we could talk about I mean I think Brainerd has a lot of great stuff happening. You know there are a lot of facilities. I mean the college is fantastic but it's disconnected from everything. I would love. I mean just to start off why don't we have a bus that goes back and forth a commuter bus. We've got the dial a ride that is kind of the bus for. And I am going to say this with respect. It's kind of the bus for old people. Right. It's not like a commuter bus.

We don't have students who live in downtown Brainerd and you know expect the bus to come by every 15 minutes and pick them up and shuttle back and forth to college. Why. Why don't we have that. We're spending more money than you would if you actually did that. Why don't why don't we do that. Why don't we put a focused effort to have housing in our core downtown. All kinds of vacant space. We've got all kinds of underutilized space. Why don't you know that students would love to live down there. We've got some cool bars opening up now. We've got some nice restaurants opening up. There's no reason why people wouldn't want to live downtown. Why don't we do that. So you start to say how can we leverage some of these things that we have now. And you see that just a ton of possibilities to do small little things with existing capital. Short of this huge rescue remedy and I actually believe that if we did some of those things we may find that a university is a logical fit in some of our places but it would be different than the way we envision it today. It would be the outcrop of something successful as opposed to an attempt to create success out of nothing.

Aaron: Yeah I think a university is the result of a successful town.

Chuck: Yes.

Aaron: And prior to that success being achieved what you're really trying to do is create the elements that would make demand for a university exist. It would be like on Sim City if you remember the old Sim City.

Chuck:  It's so funny to hear non planners when they play Sim City.  Because for me it was like this deeply geeky scientific kind of thing. Go ahead.

Aaron: No I wanted a really cool town. Yeah right. And so as soon as I got my power plant going one of the first things I wanted was like a cool stadium downtown and actually a little you know little district where it would be a cool place for me to imagine hanging out. Financially it was terrible. You know it was a really terrible idea and even in the cheesy metrics of that artificial game it was not a good idea. And so I think we skip a few steps.

Chuck: Can I make a quick comment on that because I do think like we just approved a performing arts center as part of our bond referendum in Brainerd and I remember in the 80s when we had a bond referendum and had a performing arts center and it failed. And how disappointed I was because at that point I was in the arts program and I desperately wanted something like really nice like this as a 40 some year old. Now looking at this you look at the amount of money we're spending and I look at our program which is full of great people. But I did make the comment during the discussion that boy I would if we could hire someone from the cast of Hamilton to come in and work for a month with our students would have we could hire someone from like Julliard to come in and direct a play here in town.

What if we could get like top musicians from around the country to come in and just like you know not kick out our current cause I mean our band director icicles on awesome guys a friend of mine I think he's I think he's fantastic he's really talented but what if instead of putting money into facilities we put money into programs and people. What would that mean. What would that work. What can we do with that. And actually made the comment like I would send my kid to school in a barn if they could learn from like this generation's Einstein. I think we value the concept of a you know a university as a place as opposed to constant learning.

Aaron: So the segues into actually what I was going to say because it's teaching at a Community and Technical College. There's a few things I've learned. One is that you cannot order a meal within 25 50 miles without encountering students who either cook or serve you the food.  I think they were polite about it but I think I've been pulled over by police officers who are former students law enforcement academy. I visited a colleague who was in the hospital the other day and we were sitting and chatting in the room and income a series of nurses and come to find out that each of them had been in one of our classes. So my point is with these local colleges the value is in the people. You know we train the importance to the community is that we train and prepare the people who actually live here or who could move here and prepare them for whatever they need to do whatever the community needs. That's what we do.

You know if if a big unusual factory were to come to town producing some unique element or widget they would work with us. Ideally this is how it would work and we would help them train workers that did whatever they needed. You know when new companies come in we try to respond to the demand. So I think the better thing if you want to talk about higher education having an impact. You want to talk about investing in fixing some of the workforce problems we've got in that we want our students to get jobs and to succeed if they do transfer to a four year school or something like that to succeed with graduating from that goal. I think if you want to spend a little money and work on something I think that's probably the better goal because the end result is a workforce that will attract. Because when you think about jobs and employers coming to town. I mean if you actually talk to employers one of the bigger issues I mean they care about taxes and they care about you know the supply and demand issues of whatever industry they're in but they really care about the workforce. And is there a trained workforce available that can fill their needs quickly and I think that's that's the bigger issue to look at. And if you're doing that and your community is growing then someday you can get a university or even a stadium. If it comes to that

Chuck: Let me just like put a finishing point on that the stuff that Aaron just said. Build this workforce. That is something that is a long slow grind. That's more like meat and potatoes as opposed to dessert. The stadium is dessert. You know the big facilities is dessert a lot of times we start with dessert and then think that that's going to give us nutrition. We actually have to like work on the meat and potatoes the nutrition the diet and exercise and that's the part that if I were to fault you called them confirmation bias or like Survivor bias if I were to look at the Survivor bias I think they look back at this as being the cause and discount their own or prior generations own struggles to get to that point. We actually especially in small town America need to focus on those day to day small little steps we can take to kind of build up to that gets checked T

Heidi:That's Chuck Marohn conservative commentator along with Aaron Brown our liberal commentator. It's Dig Deep we'll continue this conversation I guess about white knights third

Aaron: Beware of the white knights. That's our album title.

Heidi: We will move into small towns issue issues in politics in our next segment.

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Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.