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Ashley Cleveland of Spring Valley hangs a list of regional assets discussed Saturday during a Community Growth Initiative meeting at Treasure Island Casino. Discussion of community assets led to the development of project proposals for southeast Minnesota.

As the 20-year plan for Destination Medical Center moves toward completion, it's easy to see why residents in communities throughout southeast Minnesota might feel like they are on the outside looking in.

While DMC representatives, as well as Rochester Area Economic Development staff, have been touting the positive impacts for communities surrounding Rochester, questions continue to swirl about the ripples that likely will extend from Rochester's downtown core. What will the ripples mean for the region, as well as the state?

It's those questions that spurred a meeting of more than 100 leaders and residents from outside Rochester on Saturday. Representing a variety of backgrounds and ages, they gathered around small tables in a meeting room at Treasure Island Casino on Saturday to share knowledge of their current assets and develop ideas about how to build on them.

And they found their concerns — and aspirations — aren't that different. "I'm hearing themes emerge," said Pam Bishop, vice president of economic development for the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, which held the event.

The idea for the gathering, a regional version of the foundation's Community Growth Initiative projects used in single towns, was hatched when several communities outside Rochester asked for help regarding expected growth in the shadow of DMC.

"We had several community leaders from towns near Rochester ask if we could lead a Community Growth Initiative for them," said Tim Penny, foundation president. He noted the foundation didn't want to pick one or two communities to help, so decided to implement its first regional project.

It was the right decision. With $100,000 in matching-grant funds available, the effort is encouraging community residents to look beyond their city limits and find projects that will benefit the region.

Saturday, suggested projects initially ranged from the creation of community-specific facilities to finding new ways to access and share information throughout the region and beyond. As community members weighed and discussed options, a select few ideas rose to the top.

Further discussion and efforts to redesign the projects left the group with four potential projects:

• The creation of a regional marketing campaign to provide visitors greater insight to what is offered in the region.

• Developing a regional coordination effort to initially address current and future workforce needs, while later shifting to housing and transportation concerns.

• Constructing regional park-and-ride structures to allow people to park in surrounding communities and ride a bus to Rochester for work or other needs.

• Working to connect regional community trails to expand access and create more destinations in southeast Minnesota.

All four efforts have merit and address needs in region. They are diverse, but so are the needs in southeastern Minnesota.

As the next step, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation staff members will help establish committees for each of the proposed projects, which will create detailed pitches. The proposals will be presented to a core team of 10 southeast Minnesota community members in February, which will select one or more to fund with the $100,000 matching grant. At least $25,000 in local funds and $75,000 worth of in-kind donations will be required to match the foundation's grant.

Once the final project plans are finalized, those driving the effort will have one year to implement the approved project or projects. As a result, when DMC and RAEDI efforts are finishing their first year of longer plans, the local communities will be celebrating the success of a project that started with the gathering of people with diverse concerns and thoughts about growth in their region.

That celebration hopefully will strengthen the local communities' ties and show them they are not outside looking in. They are an active part of the region's growth and always will be.

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