U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, stopped in Little Falls Monday, to chat with local community leaders about Morrison County’s economic prospects.

During the brief visit, Klobuchar toured local business DMP Awnings located in the Little Falls Development Center as well as the proposed food hub.

Klobuchar praised the efforts of the community and SproutMN in developing the food hub concept, after learning about the hub’s potential to unite the region in improving the local economy.

“A very cool part of this project is commitment … from the grower, the buyer, the government, from the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top, meeting in the middle,” said County Commissioner Jeff Jelinski. “One of us couldn’t make this commitment alone. It truly takes a whole community.”

Klobuchar’s visit also included a stop at the WorkForce Center, where manager Brian Gapinski gave the Senator a brief summary of job prospects and trends in Little Falls, notably keeping young workers in the community.

“One of the things we see at the WorkForce Center is kids who have no idea what they want to do,” Gapinski said.

As a result, Gapinski said, students graduate from high school and leave the county, leaving manufacturing and other sectors with a lack of new hires willing to learn the trade.

“It seems really great,” Klobuchar said of the WorkForce Center’s work.

The Senator also expressed enthusiasm for the Little Falls Community Schools’ internship programs.

“If we can keep federal grants going on apprenticeships, I think that would be really important,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar sympathized with the plight of local business in finding qualified employees and cited similar problems statewide.

“I know how hard it is to get welders,” Klobuchar said. “We have an aging workforce of welders and also a new need because of more manufacturing. This is all about high school kids at this point.”

Carol Anderson, director of Community Development of Morrison County, agreed that employing local high school graduates was a solution to the region’s worker shortage.

“I’ve been in this business a long time, and there are ebbs and flows,” said Anderson. “When everybody is saying ‘Where can I get workers?’ you go to the same place — the high schools.”

Anderson also mentioned the challenge of integrating people back into the work force after DWIs or other crimes.

Klobuchar said legislation is currently in process to prevent employers from preemptively screening out potential hires solely on the basis of criminal history without first considering their other qualifications.

“They do ask eventually, but it’s not the first round question, so they get to know the person and are more likely to hire them,” Klobuchar said.

Gapinski said that, given the region’s high population of those with previous convictions, such a move could be important for local business.

“The work force has shrunk and you have to tap that population (of people with criminal histories) also,” Gapinski said.

Anderson added that a key part of promoting a healthy local economy would be to take advantage of available resources and the many strengths and skills of the population.

“You can’t force things to come to rural areas. But when you have something and start nurturing it, it goes a long way,” Anderson said.

Klobuchar’s visit to Little Falls was part of the Senator’s “Growing Minnesota” tour across the central portion of the state, including stops in Elk River, Foley and Milaca.

The Senator said she looks forward to next year’s annual visit to see the progress made by local businesses.

“I’ll have to come back and see the shrimp farm (in Pierz),” Klobuchar said.