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Jim Stratton: From 'Brain Drain' to 'Brain Gain' in rural Minnesota

ALEXANDRIA, Minn.—Progress being what it is, a lot has changed since the 1960s. But one key attitude that remains stuck in a time-warp is the narrative that Greater Minnesota is losing its best and brightest and is trapped in a slow, steady, one-way slide into political and economic irrelevance—a "Brain Drain," if you will.

Ben Winchester is a dauntless and eminently qualified fellow who has turned his sights to not only challenging that narrative as stale, but to turning it on its head with a whole new set of ideas that he's calling the "Brain Gain."

And it's starting to catch on.

The Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus, which advocates for Greater Minnesota counties, was so impressed with a presentation Winchester gave in December that the caucus put a bill together that's gathering steam at the Capitol.

The bill's chief author in the Minnesota House is Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston.

"I've presented a dozen times in each of your districts," Winchester told a recent House panel speaking in support of the Greater Minnesota Brain Gain Bill.

"I regularly get asked, 'What can we do now?', and I really didn't have a good answer. That has changed with the introduction of the Brain Gain bill, which is a first step in answering that question."

As a senior researcher with the extension office at the University of Minnesota and backed with armloads of data dredged from the deepest corners of government census sheets, Winchester is here to tell the world that there is growth in Greater Minnesota.

True, rural areas lose their 18-24 year-olds in large numbers. After all, once young people have moved through the local school system, it's natural that they'd want to expand their horizons by attending college, joining the military or traveling the world.

"But there is a whole group of family-aged people in the key 30-50 year-old category who are looking for a quality of life related to the culture, community and comfort of country living that this bill recognizes and reaches out to," Winchester said.

To illustrate, he provided the example of Chris Ingraham, the Washington Post reporter who last year called Red Lake County, Minn., "American's worst place to live." More recently, Ingraham announced he was moving his family to the county after a heartwarming visit last summer.

Winchester, who uses data to advance arguments the way Payton Manning moves a football using the downfield pass, said "Greater Minnesota is not only not declining, it is replenishing the loss of young people with family-aged, educated and experienced new residents and workers at a growth rate of 11 percent since 1970."

Plus, the newcomers are "willing and anxious to assume leadership roles in the community," he added.

Smaller cities and counties across Greater Minnesota recognize this trend and are working—most often with little or no local funding—on outreach programs to attract new residents.

The Greater Minnesota Brain Gain bill is a one-year pilot project that identifies, coordinates and supports these energetic, largely volunteer and universally underfunded regional efforts. The idea is to provide structure and funding for a year and have grant recipients report back to the Legislature about the differences a sustained, asset-based marketing plan made to the area.

Long a lone voice for changing the narrative of decline in Greater Minnesota, Winchester now seems to be picking up converts. Here's hoping they'll soon join forces to become a chorus for a new and positive reality.

Stratton, a Douglas County (Minn.) commissioner, is chairman of the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus.