Area mayors, county commissioners and school board members updated U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar Friday about the ongoing pandemic-related economic struggles of small businesses, farmers, K-12 students and others in south-central Minnesota.
The eight elected officials, organized through the Region Nine Development Commission, provided glimmers of good news along with plenty of tales of trouble as they summarized how previous federal relief has performed and listed what else is needed in the months ahead.
“It’s the local farm economy that’s really struggling,” said Steve Cooling, a Madelia Township supervisor and agricultural banker who said an increasing number of farmers are having trouble making their loan payments. “We’re seeing a lot more mediation sessions with some of our farm borrowers.”
Cooling said it was critical that more business assistance be provided in the near future to rural America, which saw the arrival of the pandemic’s economic repercussions later than some other parts of the country.
“The impact of the pandemic is really staring us in the face now more than when they were rolling that out,” he said of the federal Payroll Protection Plan.
Cooling also shared some positives from Madelia, including ongoing housing development, city investments in improved ambulance service, a major remodel of the movie theater and the purchase by Tony Downs of a blighted manufacturing plant that’s to be completely refurbished and put back to use.
“That’s going to add at least 40 new jobs,” he said.
Several people on the call, including Nicollet County Commissioner Marie Dranttel, summarized how local governments are distributing funds provided through the federal CARES Act.
Of the $4.1 million received by Nicollet County, nearly a quarter is being distributed as grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses.
“We don’t know if it’s going to be enough, but we’re going to try,” Dranttel said, adding that other dollars are going for internet access for school kids, assistance for housing and child care, mental health counseling and more.
It’s a similar story in Le Sueur County, said Commissioner Steve Rohlfing.
“When we first got it, we were like, ‘Where are we going to spend this?’” Rohlfing told Klobuchar.
They found numerous options. Along with many of the targets mentioned by Dranttel, Le Sueur County also steered funds toward food assistance, employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and extra pandemic-related expenses incurred in the county’s human services and public health agencies.
One silver lining in the pandemic is that it has exposed to political leaders some of the pressing needs in rural Minnesota, according to Rohlfing.
“The needs were always out there, but now we’re addressing them,” he said.
Comfrey’s Gary Richter addressed Klobuchar both from his perspective as mayor and as an employee of an organization that has found itself caught in partisan arguments in recent weeks.
“Broadband, we need it bad out here. Our service is awful,” Richter said, speaking as mayor before switching to Postal Service issues. “... I work for the Post Office. Stay on top of that. ... The Post Office shouldn’t be political.”
Klobuchar promised to do that, to keep working to boost the prospects of ethanol and other biofuels, to continue efforts to improve rural broadband, and to pursue pandemic relief legislation more like what was passed by the Democratic House of Representatives, saying the aid needs to come in the next six months: “Otherwise we’re going to lose all these small businesses, farms, restaurants ... .”
The three-term Democrat also said she is pushing to preserve “quality of life” amenities in Minnesota by aiming assistance toward hard-hit entertainment venues, specifically mentioning the Kato Ballroom and Mankato’s Vetter Stone Amphitheater and civic center arena. Those have been mostly shut down for months and will be among the last to reopen because of the large crowds involved.
“We know we’re going to get through this, right?” Klobuchar said. “But it’s not going to be tomorrow. I’m looking to the day after tomorrow.”