Communities are as unique as snowflakes with no two exactly alike.
Lawmakers who represent north-central Minnesota in the Legislature are elected by residents of communities as small as Fort Ripley, with population of 74 people, and as large as Brainerd, with population of 13,178.
While each community has its own assets and liabilities, legislators agree that jobs, schools and health care are among issues that determine what's in store for the future.
"I think one of the big challenges we're going to have here is to keep the jobs in the community," said Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley. "We need to focus on getting more people like Wausau Paper ... that pay a decent living wage with benefits."
Rep. Greg Blaine, R-Little Falls, said maintaining quality kindergarten-12 education and accessibility to health care will be a challenge for rural communities as their populations decline.
"We're seeing a lack of growth in population and a lack of growth in family size," he said. "We don't have the big families we used to."
Describing health care costs as a "runaway train," Blaine said he'd like to eliminate waste and find more efficient ways of providing health care. He thinks the JOBZ program has created more job opportunities.
"We have to stay aggressive on that," he said. "I think the more people we can get to work, the better our state economy does, the better our local communities do."
The agricultural economy has been on the rebound, Blaine said with milk prices stabilizing and more profits seen by those in the dairy industry. Blaine said the opening of Wausau Paper in Brainerd will help the forestry industry and increase the demand for timber.
A less optimistic view of the farm economy was offered by Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie.
"Agriculture has been a struggle for a long time, not being able to convince the middle guy to pay us a fair price for our product," she said. "People want to continue farming but the price for the product isn't there."
Farmers are unable to pool their resources for health care, she said, and many of them use MinnesotaCare, the program designed for low-income Minnesotans. She said many of her constituents have difficulty finding dentists who will accept MinnesotaCare patients, citing one person who had to travel 60 miles for a dentist appointment.
"The people in this area are really good people, Otremba said. "They are hardworking. They have a great work ethic. They don't need to be rich they just want to make enough money to do what they have to do."
Koering said that planning for growth and land use issues represents another major challenge for District 12 communities. Leaders should look at long-range projects such as one day building another Mississippi River bridge north of Brainerd, he said.
He said he'd like to one day see the Cuyuna Range trail system connected with the Paul Bunyan Trail.
"I worry more about Crosby-Ironton trying to figure out how we can get some more development up in that area so that those fine folks up there have some decent-paying jobs."
Paul Gazelka of rural Brainerd, who starts work as the House District 12A representative in January, said managing growth is always a challenge but it appears community leaders are working to protect natural resources as the population increases. He noted that Brainerd and Crosby are more established communities with different problems than Nisswa and Baxter.
Gazelka said he hasn't decided whether he'll support Baxter's effort to enact a .5 percent local option sales tax. He said that while he's not generally in favor of raising taxes he would be more likely to support Baxter's referendum-backed proposal, because it's the will of the voters.
Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said the extension of four lanes of traffic on Highway 371 past Pequot Lakes and Jenkins will be one of the important adjustments in the near future for his district. Both communities, he said, preferred the highway go through town rather than bypass the community.
School districts in District 4B, he said, are, for the most part, flourishing.
Howes said he won't support requests from Baxter and Bemidji for a sales tax because his constituents would have to pay the extra fee even though they had no input in the decision.
Otremba said cuts to state small business programs have hindered people who need a little help in the initial business startup stage. The same entrepreneurs are subjected to a great deal of paperwork for any state help, she said.
Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, said small towns are experiencing difficulty paying for big ticket infrastructure items without state help. The failure of the last Legislature to pass a bonding bill, reductions in economic development grants and reductions in local government aid have all hurt rural Minnesota, he said.
Citing one example, he said the city of Hancock is trying to improve its 1936 wastewater system.
Sams said District 11's agriculture economy is not producing revenue in the manner in which it did in years past.
"We've lost the dairy and we don't see many hogs around," he said.
The recently enacted JOBZ program has resulted in jobs going to larger regional centers and not to the small towns, Sams said.
"Small towns are hurting," he said. "I see more empty houses and more houses getting in poor shape."
Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said the JOBZ program, providing incentives for businesses to locate in specific areas, is working very well. Walker, she said, will benefit from a small manufacturing plant and an assisted living facility that are using the program in that city.
Efforts to help the forestry industry also will be a key to the economic health of District 4 communities, Ruud said. The opening of Wausau Paper in Brainerd should help the entire industry and hopefully result in more jobs. She lauded the efforts of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce and forestry industry representatives who established a Forestry Affairs Council, to educate the public on the importance of that industry.
Ruud said she was disappointed with Crow Wing County's decision to place a moratorium on planned unit developments, expressing concern the issue might get placed on the back burner and the moratorium be extended.
"I hope they get the job done," she said. "In the meantime we're crippling the resort industry."
As a way to protect this region's natural resources she said she would back a measure for a constitutional amendment for a sales tax increase of 3/16 of 1 percent for the environment and improving water quality if the money funded resources and not a bureaucracy.
"The reason people come to Minnesota and live in Minnesota is because of the beauty of the state and I think we should protect that," Ruud said.
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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