The East Central Region of Minnesota encompasses 5 counties: Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine. Like many regions of the midwestern United States, the East Central Minnesota has long had a primarily agricultural and mining-focused economy, and though the area’s iron deposits are now depleted, dairy, corn and soybean farms still dot the region, as well as paper production companies due to the region’s many softwood forests, including the Chippewa National Forest. East Central Minnesota has more recently focused on a growing tourism industry to support the area during economic transition, as the region is home to many beautiful lakes.
When local mining and, to a lesser extent, agricultural industries began to fail, the East Central Region shifted toward a service-based economy like many of its fellow U.S. communities, but the region aims to turn hardship into an opportunity for growth and attracting new industries. Beginning in 2001, the 5 counties of the region formed the Northern Technology Initiative, which is today known as GPS 45:93, the longitude and latitude coordinates of where they all meet. GPS 45:93 includes city and council economic development managers, private companies and public entities, community and regional organizations, workforce and tribal partners, all working together to improve East Central Minnesota’s ability to compete in a modern economy and attract new businesses and infrastructure investments.
Connecting Residents with the Tools to Succeed
Like many regions with major rural stretches, East Central Minnesota has struggled to bring reliable broadband access to its residents. Many citizens in the region have little access to computers or internet services, leaving them unable to participate in an increasing online economy.
While the county governments work to find the best solution for connectivity, the East Central Regional Library (ECRL) system has worked to the fill the gaps in access for all citizens. The system consists of 14 library branches and 8 outreach sites across the 5 counties as well as neighboring Aitkin. The ECRL provides access to computers, broadband internet service including free wireless access within the library branches and technical support and assistance, as well as intermittent technology training classes. The library system’s website (ecrlib.org) connects library card users to research databases such as EBSCO and Gale, online learning classes including Universal Class, Hoonuit and Mango languages and a large collection of eBooks, eAudiobooks and eMagazines containing a wealth of information and research materials. Library staff provide in-person assistance for those looking to use the ECRL’s wealth of services and also provide chat reference services 24/7 through the statewide AskMN service. Just over 50% of the region’s citizens have active library cards, and many of the library resources are accessible even without one, leading to nearly 500,000 library visits across the region in 2018 alone.
Training the Next Generation Workforce
To support a changing economy, East Central Minnesota needs workers trained in a wide variety of new and traditional skills. GPS 45:93’s workforce committee established the Innovative Approaches to Career Readiness program in 2017 and held its first event in May 2018. The event featured speakers from local high schools and academies with innovative programs already established to assist students in identifying career paths available to them in the region and providing them with appropriate advice and training. Innovative Approaches to Career Readiness aimed to bring representatives from regional high schools and local businesses together in collaboration so that high schools could create new programs to help teach the skills local businesses particularly need to succeed. GPS 45:93 followed up the May event with a tour of Cardinal Manufacturing at the Eleva-Strom High School, a student-run manufacturing company.
The region held the second Innovative Approaches to Career Readiness event in May of 2019, showcasing a panel of new schools and their students sharing programs and projects. The second event highlighted students from a culinary program, a nursing assistant program, multiple apprenticeships and CEO programs. Presenters also shared region labor market and training information, and GPS 45:93 announced the availability of grant funding for schools to start new career initiatives and projects in the future, with 3 schools receiving such grants in the same year they were announced.
Collaborating to Reduce Regional Waste
The 5 counties of East Central Minnesota joined together to form the East Central Solid Waste Commission in 1988 with the goal of establishing solid-waste disposal and recycling programs for the region. Since its founding, the commission has created joint recycling centers, landfills and compost disposal areas, as well as providing collection services for construction and demolition debris and methane for fuel production. It has passed resolutions making on-site disposal of garbage illegal, reducing many of the negative side effects of solid waste disposal throughout the region. With its infrastructure firmly in place, the commission now focuses on education and institutional awareness, providing training in best practices for disposal to promote public health and cost effectiveness. The East Central Solid Waste Commission also serves as the region’s manager for sustainability program grant applications and opportunities such as Green Corps. Residential recycling in the East Central Region has increased by 30% since instituting these training and education programs, with 88% of local businesses recycling paper, 60% recycling plastics, 47% recycling metal and glass and 38% recycling special items such as electronics and batteries. Providing convenient means to recycle such specialized items is the East Central Solid Waste Commission’s next goal for the future.
In times of increasing economic uncertainty, the East Central Region of Minnesota has focused first and foremost on itself as a community, bolstering opportunities for residents to meet whatever the future holds in store.