Even as parts of the economy expand and the unemployment rate in our region is low, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) continues to look for ways to leverage our assets in rural Minnesota. We have built a reputation for investing in and strengthening local assets. We know the return has been great. SMIF's areas of focus - entrepreneurial and early childhood education - are central to future economic growth here in our region.

Over the last 27 years, southern Minnesota cities and counties have been supporting SMIF through their annual financial contributions. Despite recent years of budget tightening, county and city leaders acknowledge that they continue to support SMIF because they see that their annual contributions give a great return on their investment.

Over the summer, I travel to all 20 counties in our region, and visit as many cities as possible. It's exciting to meet with local government officials and city leaders and share with them what SMIF has done in their communities over the past year. It's always rewarding to report that the return on their investment has been significant. The ROIs range from 400 percent to 1,700 percent, a return most investors would envy. For example, donor support within one county totaled $245,000. In turn, SMIF has invested over $3.1 million in grants and loans within that county - that's an impressive ROI by any measure.

We understand that local officials must be prudent with taxpayer dollars, and as a result, local governments must do more with leveraging and partnership. That's why investing in local organizations that help to create and contribute to economic vitality makes good sense.

Here at SMIF, we are committed to giving all of our southern Minnesota communities opportunities to grow. We will continue to make sound investments, leverage existing assets, and focus on projects that increase economic vitality. It is our goal to see a region of vibrant, prosperous communities now and into the future.

We're excited to share more specifics of our past year's success at our annual luncheon Oct. 10. This year, we're emphasizing and celebrating our goal of "Investing in Entrepreneurs." For more details and registration, visit our website at www.smifoundation.org.

Tim Penny is president/CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

He welcomes your comments and questions. You can reach him by phone (507) 455-3215 or email timp@smifoundation.org.