By Ryan Schuster
Despite dire economic indicators and speculation that the slumping housing market may dip the country into recession, speakers at a Tuesday luncheon in the Alerus Center offered a decidedly more optimistic take on the regional economy.

The general message at the luncheon to kick off activities for today's Marketplace for Entrepreneurs was that advances in renewable and new energy sources and changes in technology offer opportunity for North Dakota and Minnesota.

“People can get discouraged about the economy, but I am an optimist,” said keynote speaker Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “Every time I go out and visit rural economies, I am encouraged.”

Klobuchar said renewable energy sources such as cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass grown on marginal land in Minnesota and North Dakota and wind and solar energy offer great possibilities for the future of energy production and agriculture in the region.

“This is a time of extraordinary opportunity in North Dakota,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is co-hosting Marketplace with state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson. “I don't think in my lifetime I have seen as much opportunity in this state.”

Gov. John Hoeven also was quick to sing the praises of the state's economy, which has been helped by an oil boom, high crop prices and an increase in Canadian tourism.

“North Dakota is growing,” Hoeven said. “When we talk about our economy, it is really exciting.”

Hoeven said the state needs to continue to diversify its economy through renewable and other energy sources, innovation and new business start-ups.

All the speakers stressed the importance of passing the farm bill.

“We've got to seize this opportunity right now,” Conrad said during a press conference Tuesday when asked about negotiations with the White House over versions of the farm bill passed by the House and Senate. “Support for the farm bill is as bipartisan as any bill passed in the past 30 years. We think the White House needs to face up to this. This is very important to the country.”

Another common theme expressed at the luncheon was decreasing the country's dependence on foreign oil.

“Instead of looking to the Mideast for help with this crisis, we could look to the Midwest and grow it ourselves,” Conrad said, referring to increasing renewable energy output from sources such as ethanol.

Klobuchar said the government can play a role in helping the process along by offering incentives and extending wind and solar tax credits, which are due to expire later this year.

“It has been like a game of red light, green light,” she said of the on-again, off-again tax credits. “We need to extend it and extend it for longer to encourage investment.”

But Klobuchar added that the economies of Minnesota and North Dakota also face challenges, particularly in rural areas.

Some of Klobuchar's concerns included access to affordable health care for individuals and businesses and the country's aging infrastructure, mentioning the August 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

“If we're going to be putting together an economy for the next century, we can't be using a transportation system that was put together in the last century,” Klobuchar said.