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Man behind 'quality of place' concept in NW Minnesota to retire

BEMIDJI -- With a couple years' military service behind him and a new degree in planning, John Ostrem came to Bemidji to gain experience and move on. He'll move on Jan. 1 -- 35 years later and after careers building two northwest Minnesota agencies.

BEMIDJI -- With a couple years' military service behind him and a new degree in planning, John Ostrem came to Bemidji to gain experience and move on. He'll move on Jan. 1 -- 35 years later and after careers building two northwest Minnesota agencies.

Today, a public reception is planned for 3-5 p.m. at the Beltrami Electric Co-op community room to honor his retirement from career No. 2 spending the past 7 years as president of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

It's a post he took in 2000, ending career No. 1 as executive director of the Headwaters Regional Development Commission since 1976.

"I came to Bemidji in 1973 to be the planning director" of the HRDC, Ostrem said earlier this week in an interview. "I had about five years of experience before that, came up here and thought this would be great place to work in that position, get three or four years of experience and then move somewhere else."

It was a time when regional development commissions were seen as another layer of bureaucratic government, with some holding even darker views of what essentially was an agency to help local governments with planning.


"Those were the times when the commission was going through some really difficult days," Ostrem remembers. "We had folks who were trying to run the HRDC out of business because they thought we were some kind of communist conspiracy."

But three years later, when Dick Pearson, then-HRDC director, resigned to start a restaurant, Ostrem decided to apply for the post, and was hired as executive director in 1976.

He led that agency through those turbulent times and laid the groundwork to establish one of the most successful RDCs in the state, with many of the staff he hired still in place.

He moved over to the Northwest Minnesota Foundation in 2000, helping fill a void left by the untimely death of Ruth Edevold, who helped found the original Northwest Minnesota Initiative Fund, NWMF's predecessor.

After 27 years with the HRDC, Ostrem said that with the "circumstances of Ruth's passing away suddenly was just another kind of unexpected turn in my career. This job became available, I applied and I was hired over here.

"All in all, I've really been blessed with opportunities to follow a career that I trained for and enjoyed, and it's been a great career," he said.

Whether it be the HRDC or the NWMF, Ostrem credits his staff for their dedication and concern for the region in the work they do for either agency.

But while Ostrem modestly downplays his role, many will say that he took the strong foundation that Edevold laid and built a non-profit agency that plays an important role in dozens of communities throughout northwest Minnesota.


He is credited with bringing the concept of "quality of place" to northwest Minnesota thinking, that northern Minnesota's natural resources can be a nice place to raise a family and to work whether in new jobs created here or via today's computer technology that allows long-distance communications.

The original Northwest Minnesota Initiative Fund was one of six started in 1986 through the McKnight Foundation, armed with seed money to make grants and loans to meet the social and economic needs of the region.

A regional board of directors guides the local fund, and Ostrem served on that for nine years before becoming president, so he brought that experience with him.

"The Foundation had focused on two areas, economic development and providing resources to support social service organizations," Ostrem said. "It was called capacity building."

The board, when Ostrem became president, "decided that we should be more encompassing, to include natural assets as well as structural assets schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure in our communities."

The ensuing quality of life concept embraces all of them, he said, natural assets, social assets, structural assets and economic assets. "It's really been well received, and that idea has resonated throughout the region."

An example, he said, is the inset pages of the new Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce guide book which depicts that "Bemidji lakes area is quality of place." Many other regional cities are using the same words to describe what they offer, he said.

"We've branded the region, and people are now recognizing that northwest Minnesota is a great place to get an education and get a job," Ostrem said.


One of those future jobs hopefully will be in applied engineering, another NWMF project, he said. Ingenuity Frontier connects regional higher education institutions and school districts to provide applied engineering curricula leading to jobs in the region. It also helped Bemidji State become part of a center of excellence for applied engineering.

And the NWMF is trying to spread that word, often working behind the scenes to grease the wheel but letting others do the work.

One example is the Joint Powers Board that controls zoning and planning in the Greater Bemidji Area though an innovative 15-year orderly annexation agreement with the city and Northern and Bemidji townships. The NWMF provided the means to initially put the sides together, but it was the HRDC working with the entities that found agreement.

"We try to act as a catalyst to get things to happen in the region," Ostrem said. "Then we step aside. We don't attempt to provide that level of service, that's what the HRDC and other agencies like that do."

Providing support and resources when they're needed is key, he said.

Such an area is in early childhood education, where a NWMF project works with 10 community coalitions to provide resources to child care providers and centers.

"They are working to improve early child care and education," Ostrem said. Mostly funded the McKnight Foundation, he said the hopes are "to convince the state and the Legislature to provide additional resources to support early childhood education."

Numerous studies have shown that investments in early childhood programs will save long-term state funding in human services and corrections.


In addition, NWMF provides ongoing training retreats to develop community leadership, and provides programs that highlight women's careers and successes in the region, such as a Women's Hall of Fame.

"Ruth gets a lot of credit . . . in deciding that was an important thing to establish," Ostrem said of recognizing women. "That has really taken off in the last six or seven years."

The NWMF provides another important community function as a trustee for community charitable donation funds, allowing legacies to be built all over the region. With that, the Northwest Minnesota Initiative Fund became the Northwest Minnesota Foundation in 1997.

"This would be a good service to the region that the Foundation could provide," Ostrem said of setting up endowment and trust funds for communities, known as component funds.

During Ostrem's tenure, the funds have grown from $4 million to $13.5 million. Overall, NWMF's assets are $47.1 million, growing from $29 million in 2000. "Half of that has been in those component funds," he said.

The McKnight Foundation continues to fund regional funds it established, Ostrem said, but a blending of other funds now comprises the most funding. McKnight monies account for only about 20 percent of the budget today.

"Over the years, they've given us about $36 million," he said. "A lot of that was used to establish a general endowment that we only spend the investment proceeds."

Taking over for Ostrem will be Nancy Vyskocil, currently chief financial officer and vice president of the Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Pelican Rapids, Minn. Ostrem has agreed to serve as a consultant to Vyskocil, if needed, for the first four months of 2008.


"The Foundation is poised now to have a real impact on the region," Ostrem says. "We have certainly grown our resources, we have created a vision for what we want to do with those resources in the qualify of place concept.

"And I think we are seen as a place where people can get support for their ideas, whether they be grants or loans or leadership training or building philanthropic resources within the region."

People are optimistic, Ostrem adds. "For the most part, people are pretty optimistic about the future, where five or 10 years ago they weren't so optimistic."

Population decline was a harbinger of concern, "but we've heard reports that young families are moving in to a lot of our small communities," he said. "Younger people are taking leadership roles, the farm economy is doing really well .. and our manufacturing base did better during the recent slowdown than a lot of manufacturing areas in the country."

Ostrem, 64, plans now to travel with his wife, Eloise, mostly to see their three daughters in Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, two grandchildren and two more on the way.

"We'd like to see more of them, and that's one of the reasons to retire at this age so we can," he said.


The Bemidji Pioneer and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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