This past year might have been the most challenging ever for CEDA.

Fortunately, taking on challenges is what the company does best.

"For us as an organization, it was our busiest year ever," said Cris Gastner, senior vice president of Community and Economic Development Associates. "To a person on our team, we felt that responsibility to distribute that information on the hopes of helping businesses survive."

ALSO READ: Survey shows barriers Hispanics face in Lake City

On Thursday, June 10, CEDA held its annual meeting, which included discussion on how the company had faired during the past year and breakout sessions on topics dealing with economic and community development. Like its 2020 annual meeting, Thursday's was held virtually because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

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That pandemic, Gastner said, played a big part in what kept CEDA so busy in 2020.

"The hardest part, I think for all of us in our communities (we serve), to see the businesses that couldn’t survive this last year," Gastner said. "It was something beyond everyone’s control."

Cris Gastner
Cris Gastner

CEDA, which provides economic development and community planning advice to 21 cities and counties in Southeast Minnesota, found its hands full helping businesses navigate the maze of COVID-related programs such as the payroll protection plan and CARES Act. For businesses owners who saw their customers dwindle because of the coronavirus, getting federal or state aid was the difference between having their doors open or shuttered.

Even then, the economy, suffering due to the pandemic, sent some businesses down.

Part of Thursday's meeting was to provide people working in economic development – lenders, real estate and business developers, workforce development professionals and community leaders, among others – with the tools they need to help communities grow.

Deb Brown of SaveYour.Town, a company devoted to helping rural communities thrive, said she was most impressed by a session about how immigrants still find small-town America an appealing place to settle, and how those groups are adding needed workforce and cultural flavor to small towns, even in the Upper Midwest.

"I like that they were publicly talking about the benefits of immigrants in Minnesota," Brown said. "They talked about the homegrown economy. I think seeing how people take their business from that homegrown spot into a physical (storefront) spot is always interesting to me."

Brown said agriculture and food manufacturing businesses such as meat packing plants or canning facilities rely on immigrants.

And, as she learned from the presentation, as communities accept and integrate immigrant communities more, those communities see increased success in everything from high school graduation rates to home ownership.

That session was presented by Lake City EDA Executive Director Kjellgren Alkire.

Alkire said he hoped one thing people learned from his session is that immigration has been changing Minnesota since before it was a state.

"Minnesota is a place where immigrants have come for more than 200 years," Alkire said. "Immigrants are still coming. You see it in agriculture and food processing, and you see it in health care."

Last year, Lake City's EDA conducted a survey of the town's immigrant population that showed some of the roadblocks and cultural differences that keep immigrants from achieving financial and personal success. Alkire said the city is working to break down those barriers and be a more welcoming community because immigrants are needed, especially with so many available jobs in the region.

Brown found interest and inspiration in other sessions of the annual meeting.

"Everyone needs façade improvements," she said. "But what about just sweeping your sidewalk or putting displays from open businesses in storefronts, or student art. If you're sweeping your sidewalk, take a picture of yourself doing it. It starts a great conversation."