Local community members gathered at the Spring Valley Ambulance Service facility on Thursday, March 1, to partake in the kickoff meeting for the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation's (SMIF) Rural Entrepreneurial Venture (REV) program.

City administrator Deb Zimmer, the coordinator for REV in Spring Valley, touched on how the Spring Valley Economic Development Authority (EDA) was able to bring the program to the area.

“They put out a grant application where five communities would be picked to do this three-year program,” Zimmer explained. “It will assist in trying to grow businesses within the community.  We were very excited to get it and we are hoping to have a good support system when we're all done with this.”

Jennifer Hawkins, of the University of Minnesota Extension office, will serve as the group's program coach while Jenn Slifka and Jason Runck will serve as the community champions.

Spring Valley will be collaborating with Lanesboro. The two communities will be working together on the project, but also will set some individual goals and hope to learn something from each other.

Other communities involved with the program are Spring Grove, Lake City, Le Sueur and Blue Earth.

“We've been working a bit with Lanesboro and Spring Valley to go through the Rural Enterprise Venture process,” Hawkins said. “The main activities are identifying entrepreneurs, the resources that are out there and connecting them.”

Hawkins then introduced Don Macke, who represents The Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, which is based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“He has a program called Energizing Entrepreneurs that he has done across the nation and it is really focused on rural entrepreneurship development as a core economic development strategy for small towns,” Hawkins stated.

Macke shared information gathered about Fillmore County and Spring Valley through its research for the program.

“One of the things I think becomes important is your community in relationship to other communities. Obviously, you've got employment and service hubs, such as box stores and franchises that create competition for local merchants. Just looking at your city, there is an estimated 230 workers who live in your community and also work in your community. On a daily basis you have 527 people who live outside of your community but come in to work. Everyday the Census Bureau is estimating you have nearly 1,000 people who are living in your community but are community outside of the community for work,” Macke explained.

According to Macke, Spring Valley does have strong return rates for Spring Valley natives ages 30 to 40.

“What it suggests is you are seeing migration, but then they come back and they may attract friends or family to come to the community,” he said. “The 30-year-olds are really important because they are the leading edge of your work force and they are the folks that are eventually going to buy businesses and they have families so they will be using the school. This is a pretty positive sign.”

According to Macke, the city has shown positive wage growth, as well.

“One thing that really stands out is other services. You've got nearly seven times higher concentration of that,” Macke said of Fillmore County. “Also, healthcare is number nine in terms of the overall generation of household earnings. It has grown by over 200 percent. That is pretty significant; those are unusual numbers.”

The research showed prior to 2010 Spring Valley was in a slight, but steady population decline. Since 2010, the city has turned that around and now shows steady projected growth in the population.

“It suggests that not only do you have some economic strength, but you are beginning to win that demographic battle,” Macke said.

After soaking up all the new information, the group discussed various concerns, as well as ideas on how to help grow the community.

Concerns ranged from the empty lots now in the downtown block, negativity about enrollment within the Kingsland School District, a growing disconnect between where one works and lives, work force shortages, lack of affordable housing and rental spaces, a child care shortage and a decline in volunteerism within the community.

The group's ideas on how to solve these issues and continue to grow the city included creating facilities and businesses geared toward the community's youth, expanding the trail system, building a state veterans home in the city, growing the downtown and establish more support for small businesses.

Over the next three years, the program, with the help of community members, will work to create a strong support system for entrepreneurs, as well as established businesses.

“There is a lot of talent we have within our own community and this may be avenue to help them take the risk to jump in,” Zimmer concluded.