Two Other Minnesota Cities Celebrate Diversity

Previous posts have discussed the positive impacts of immigrants on the southwestern Minnesota city of Worthington (Micropolitan Pop. 20,500 (2018)).  Now two other Minnesota outstate cities (southeastern Austin and northwestern Roseau) have joined the chorus.

Austin, Minnesota[1]

The city of Austin, population 25,190 (2018 est.) is the county seat of southeastern Mower County bordering Iowa to the south. It is the corporate headquarters of Hormel Foods Corp., a Fortune 500 company that grew out of the town’s small late 19th century butcher shop owned by George A. Hormel. In early January this year the county board gave its unanimous consent to resettlement of refugees.

“From 1% minority population in 1980 to 31% today, . . . [Austin’s] transformation has been profound. Immigrants from six continents call Austin home. Schools count more minority students than white students, with 48 different languages being spoken in classrooms. A medley of ethnic dining options and food markets surround the Spam Museum along Main Street downtown.”

The city’s high school basketball team, the Packers, has helped draw this diverse community together. For example, the winning last-second basket in a recent game was scored by Agwa Nywesh, an Ethiopian-American born in Austin.  “Hundreds of students storm the court and took “turns hugging him. White kids, and African kids, and Asian kids, and Hispanic kids. Rich kids, poor kids. All celebrating. The big victories, they bring people together.”

The high school’s soccer program is also successful, becoming a state-tournament regular. “Hold up a mirror to this team and Austin’s diversity stares back. The roster includes a mix of white, Hispanic, Karenni and African players, and one teammate from Poland.”

In its “swelling school district, 37% of students speak a primary language other than English, double the statewide average. One in 12 children here was born outside of the United States, and many more were raised speaking their parents’ native language.” In response , “cultural liaisons were hired to be ‘success coaches’ for students of different ethnic communities. Santino Deng, the success coach for the African community, describes his job as ‘like 9-1-1.’”

Adjusting to these changes was not easy. According to the city’s mayor, Tom Stiehm, at first “you have that big blank space in your head and we just have a tendency to fill it with negative things. Once I got to learn the community and learn the people,” he changed. “It’s the wave of the future. You can either ride that wave or you can drown. I tell people, it doesn’t matter what you like. This is going to happen, and you better acclimate yourself to it.”

“A Welcome Center opened on Main Street, and Taste of the Nations events offered foods from different cultures, including hot dish from the ladies at the Lutheran church. The Hormel Foundation, which pours more than $9 million annually into Mower County with many initiatives, partnered with the YMCA to create a kid-friendly membership: $1 per year, per kid. One night, more than 700 kids — many of them Sudanese — checked into the Y within a four-hour period.”

“City leaders have begun including new voices in high-profile settings. The City Council established a rotating, honorary seat that goes to a leader from an immigrant community. That person doesn’t vote but serves for three months sitting alongside the city attorney and police chief at meetings.”

“Over time, immigrant families found their footing, becoming permanent citizens, taxpayers, homeowners, neighbors. Their kids filled schools, and immigrants opened businesses downtown.”

All of this prompted the state’s main newspaper, the StarTribune, to salute Austin in an editorial. “At a time when so much public discussion about immigrants and immigration is negative — with overblown, fear-inducing narratives about criminal activity, building walls and keeping people out — a Minnesota town is demonstrating how new Americans can strengthen a community.”

 Roseau, Minnesota[2]

The city of Roseau, population 2,660 (2018 est.), is the county seat of Roseau County bordering Canada. A predecessor of Polaris Industries started its history there in 1954 with a prototype of a snowmobile, and the town still has the company’s main manufacturing plant for snowmobiles, all-terrain-vehicles (“ATVs”) and other products along with the company’s R&D.

Roseau, however, has an aging, declining population like most other small communities in the state and as a result has a major challenge in meeting Polaris’ demand for workers. Steve Hine, a research economist for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said,  “There aren’t enough young people being born in Roseau County and staying in Roseau County to meet the needs of an expanding company like Polaris.”

A year ago Polaris hired a Puerto Rican recruiting firm to find a partial solution for a plant that consistently has about 70 job openings — and could add 70 more jobs if it could find the workers. In so doing, the company recognized that Puerto Rico might be a ready source of workers as it was suffering from hurricanes and more recently earthquakes and as its residents were U.S. citizens.

This recruiting effort has been successful. “On a recent weeknight, some 150 people crowded into Polaris’ fancy new lobby to celebrate the newcomers. A Puerto Rican made 80 pounds of pork butt. The manager of Roseau’s town ball team recruited Puerto Rican ballplayers. One Puerto Rican couple danced merengue. It was the biggest turnout Roseau’s Civic and Commerce Association has ever had.”

One of the newcomers, Ricardo Rojas, had been “a successful network systems engineer for a health insurer in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the mortgage on his $345,000 house was paid off, and his daughter was attending private school. Then he got laid off, . . . [and he] struggled to find steady work. . . . [His] home value plummeted. Jobs became even more scarce.” Now the job at Polaris “was a lifeline: double the pay of a manufacturing job back home, with full benefits, plus a better education for his 14-year-old daughter, who wants to be a doctor.”

Another Puerto Rican newcomer, Edwin Colón Pérez, “had worked at a medical manufacturing company in Puerto Rico, where he made $10.81 an hour. But production plummeted after the hurricane. Colleagues were laid off. Pérez has two children, 5 and 10, so he jumped at the opportunity to work 12-hour night shifts on Polaris’ manufacturing line, where he bends pipes in tube fabrication. He was excited to live in a place the high school principal describes as ‘Mayberry in the ’60s.’”

More generally, the Puerto Ricans “have filled the town’s housing — in apartments, in rental houses, in converted church basements — and brought diversity to this generations-long Scandinavian outpost.” They also “work at the AmericInn and at the bakery at Super One Foods. One Polaris employee hopes to open a restaurant featuring island specialties like mofongo and alcapurria. The wife of another hopes to start a school dance team. They worship at churches and drink beers at Legends Sports Pub and Grill. At a high school lip-sync competition, a new student rapped in Spanish a song he’d written. The 500 students erupted in applause.”

Rev. Steve Hoffer, pastor at Roseau Evangelical Covenant Church, welcomes the Puerto Ricans to the town. Along with six other churches, his church collected donated furniture and bedding, winter coats and used cars for the newcomers and bought plane tickets for families while Polaris paid for travel and temporary lodging for each worker. Said Pastor Hoffer,  “This is a win-win-win for everyone. This is a win for Polaris because companies up here in the northwest corner of Minnesota have a hard time finding employees. It’s a win for our community because it helps broaden the overall perspective of our town. There’s a world of people out there with very different experiences than people who have been here their entire lives. And it’s a win for the folks who are moving here, because this is an economic opportunity they simply didn’t have in Puerto Rico.”

Comments

These two towns remind one of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s recent consent to resettlement of refugees. In his letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the Governor said, “Minnesota has a strong moral tradition of welcoming those who seek refuge. Our state has always stepped forward to help those who are fleeing desperate situations and need a safe place to call home.” Moreover, he said, “Refugees strengthen our communities. Bringing new cultures and fresh perspectives, they contribute to the social fabric of our state. Opening businesses and supporting existing ones, they are critical to the success of our economy. Refugees are doctors and bus drivers. They are entrepreneurs and police officers. They are students and teachers. They are our neighbors.” (Emphasis in original.)[3]

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[1] Austin, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Mower County, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Mower County Online; Hormel Foods Corp.;Minnesota Counties’ Actions on Refugee Resettlement, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 15, 2020); Scoggins, Austin’s True Colors, StarTribune (Feb. 23, 2020); Editorial, A salute to Austin—a welcoming Minnesota town, StarTribune (Mar. 2, 2020).

[2] Forgrave, Puerto Rican connection brings workers, diversity to Roseau, StarTribune (Mar. 7, 2020); Flores, Photography: Puerto Rican families make their home in Roseau, StarTribune (Mar. 8, 2020); Roseau, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Roseau County, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Roseau County, Welcome; Polaris Inc., Wikipedia; Polaris Industries, Inc.

[3]  Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2019).

 

Minnesota Facing Slowdown in Labor Force Growth

The State of Minnesota currently is experiencing many positive economic circumstances. First, “most people who want a job have one, with the state’s unemployment rate floating around 3.4 percent. Meanwhile, nearly seven in 10 working-age Minnesotans either have or are looking for jobs, ensuring employers have a robust talent pool from which to hire.” [1] Second, smaller towns and cities in the rural parts of the State are affirmatively seeking younger people to move in. [2]

However, “[o]ver the next ten years, Minnesota is forecast to have far fewer people entering the labor force than previous decades — a problem for employers, who may have problems filling critical jobs as baby boomers retire and others drop out of the workforce.”

This problematic future was endorsed by Cameron Macht, a regional analysis and outreach manager at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. He said, “It’s definitely a major issue for employers in the state, and looking forward it may become an even bigger deal.”

There are at least three key factors contributing to this problem.

First, working-age residents who are not working or looking for jobs now amount to about 30 percent of this group. “Many are in Greater Minnesota [the rural parts of the State], where in some counties nearly half of the adult population has dropped out of the workforce.”

Second, in excess of half of the state’s workforce dropouts are 65 and older — a number that is likely to increase as more baby boomers reach retirement age.

Third, roughly  60% of this group are women. Among those staying home, lack of sufficient childcare could be of concern, and Census data shows about a quarter of married couples with children under 18 reported at least one spouse outside the workforce.”

“Foreign-born populations also affect these rates, as they accounted for both a 60 percent jump in labor force growth from 2007 to 2017 but a 25 percent increase in those outside the workforce.”

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[1] Hargarten, Minnesota faces a labor growth slowdown. This data helps explain why, StarTribune (Sept. 1, 2019).

[2] Rural Minnesota Endeavoring To Attract Young People, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 2, 2019).