On the Road to a Greater Minnesota

When we think about rural economic development, we don’t often think about child care. But that’s exactly what communities in Greater Minnesota have been thinking about when it comes to growth and revitalization. Now, Greater Than Minnesota (>MN) – a partnership between First Children’s Finance and the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations – is mobilizing those communities.

“A sustainable supply of affordable, high quality child care is absolutely essential to a community,” said Heidi Hagel Braid, Minnesota Director at First Children’s Finance. “It enables parents to go to and be productive at work, prepares children for success in school and in life, and is vital to a thriving local economy.”

While each region faces a different set of challenges, their stories are very much the same. Where some might see desolate swaths of land and dwindling populations, >MN sees opportunity for innovation and renewal. “We want to figure out what’s working and what’s not working,” said Hagel Braid. “There are some amazing things happening in Greater Minnesota, and we plan to build on those successes.”

Quality early care and education happens every day, everywhere: a husband and wife team providing 24/7 care for shift workers in St. James; the Sisters of Mount St. Benedict who run Sunrise Center in Crookston, a community’s oldest generation caring for its youngest; dedicated Head Start and preschool professionals throughout the state who tackle the achievement gap on a daily basis.

For all of its successes, there are also challenges that are unique to Greater Minnesota: a county’s only center shuts its doors, putting working parents in a bind and disrupting their child’s stable environment; a family provider now caring for a second generation of children in New Ulm looks forward to a well-deserved retirement, but worries about modest savings and where the next generation will go; a rare outpost of rural growth in Thief River Falls is stunted by the lack of child care options for new employees.

When the challenges are different, the solutions must be different. In rural communities, child care exists and often struggles within a regional market context. Ebbs and flows of the local economy greatly influence the sustainability of a community’s child care supply. That’s why >MN is tackling rural economic development through the unique lens of early care and education.

By holding a Child Care Town Hall as its starting point in each region of the state, >MN is determined to listen and learn, not lecture and diagnose. >MN held its first Town Hall last week in Fertile (pictured), where a packed room of community members came out to voice the Northwest Region’s early care and education issues. From Head Start to health care, representing ages cradle to college and businesses large and small, >MN is determined to not just bring all of the players to the table, but change how they play together.

Based on the priorities established and ideas generated at each Town Hall, a Community Solution Action Plan will be drafted and posted on its website, greaterthanmn.org, for comment and feedback from the public. First Children’s Finance will provide direct services to those early care and education businesses identified within the plan. Also integral to >MN is the recruitment of regional business leaders and decision makers to help implement and advocate for the plan over time. “It’s a simple business model approach of research, development, implementation, analysis, and ultimately, results,” said Hagel Braid. “By applying it to the early care and education sector, we can create real and lasting change in Greater Minnesota.”

Photo: Child Care Town Hall in Fertile, from left – Heidi Hagel Braid, First Children’s Finance; Rep. Deb Kiel, MN House of Representatives; Vicky Grove and Dawn Ganje, Northwest MN Foundation

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