Small communities in Minnesota have many useful assets: natural and built physical resources, economic strengths, skilled workers, and more. These assets help communities meet their current challenges and move toward longer-term aspirations.
A new program led by several University of Minnesota partners, including the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, aims to support these pillars of our state.
The Empowering Small Minnesota Communities (ESMC) Program will identify ways that individual small communities can leverage their assets to create infrastructure and development projects—ones that support and enhance community vitality, identity, and resilience. The program will also help communities compete for state and federal project funding.
The multiyear program is a partnership between communities and the University. It was established by the State of Minnesota during the 2023 legislative session to give small Minnesota communities and local government units added capacity to develop resilient, sustainable, and adaptable infrastructure projects.
In addition to the Humphrey School, the program is collaboratively led by these University partners:
- Center for Transportation Studies (CTS)
- U of M Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships
- Minnesota Design Center
- Center for Urban and Regional Affairs
The program is aimed at municipalities and townships that have populations of less than 15,000 people as of the 2020 census.
“This threshold covers the vast majority of municipalities and townships in Minnesota,” said Humphrey School Associate Dean and Professor Ryan Allen, who helped launch the program. “The common denominator among these communities is that they have significant infrastructure needs, but may lack the staff time and experience that can be necessary to apply for a complicated federal or state grant.”
Those eligible for the program include Minnesota tribal nations, local units of government, and nonprofit and community-based organizations. They can choose one of three pathways through which to apply, depending on the length and complexity of their project proposals. Researchers from the University partners will be matched with projects based on the areas of expertise they require.
For example, faculty and researchers at the Humphrey School will work with communities on ‘Tactical Action Projects’ such as feasibility studies or community needs assessments, and on short-term ‘Rapid Response’ tasks such as data collection and analysis, GIS mapping, and policy research.
This type of community engagement fits well with the Humphrey School’s focus on community collaboration, according to Frank Douma, director of State and Local Policy and Outreach in the School’s Institute for Urban and Regional Infrastructure Finance.
“This new program gives Humphrey School faculty and researchers another opportunity to use their expertise to directly impact communities throughout the state, further strengthening those connections,” said Douma, another of the School’s leaders on the program.
Interested communities and organizations should apply to the program by the deadline of 5 p.m. on February 14, 2024. At least one more round of applications will take place in the future, and the program will run through June 2026.
The ESMC program is one of several paths for Minnesota communities to seek technical assistance and support for various improvement projects. Another program led by the University is the new Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center, which focuses on sustainability and environmental justice projects. In addition, multiple state agencies have programs, and the state has named an enterprise director for the Federal Funds Implementation Unit of the Minnesota Management and Budget agency.
Visit the Empowering Small Minnesota Communities Program website for more information.