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Minnesota 2020 Journal: What's Good for Dakota County is Good for Minnesota

July 30, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
Everything you need to know about Minnesota's future is found in Dakota County. Its industrial identity, population shifts, education needs and transportation issues mirror the state as a whole. Therefore, Minnesota's problems and Minnesota's potential are revealed in Dakota County's annual Community Indicators report. I don't mean to gush but it's a marvelous piece of research, informing Dakota County's public policy debate. The lessons for Minnesota are equally impressive and applicable.

Before we get lost in the Dakota County love fest, it's not a positive report. The data suggest considerable doubt much as a cloud drifts through a sunny day. County income distribution is a great example. The rich are getting richer and the poor grow poorer. That growing disparity presents stark public policy challenges. Wealthy county residents want and expect different services from county government than poor residents. Satisfying both, within reasonable budget parameters, is no small achievement.

The Community Indicators report's first audiences are Dakota County's elected officials. Principally, that means County Board members but it extends to anyone representing any part of the county, from legislators to mayors to soil and water district board members. Governor Tim Pawlenty, as an Eagan resident and Minnesota's chief executive, presumably receives a copy. It's less clear that he reads it or acts on outlined challenges.

After elected leaders, the report speaks to county residents. It should be recommended reading for all. Citizens are phenomenally well-served by county planners' judgment and insight. In readily digestible form, a great deal of demographic, income, education, public health, housing and transportation information is gathered, analyzed and shared. The resulting picture isn't always pretty but it is extremely informative. Smart readers will recognize the opportunities to craft and implement effective public policy initiatives minimizing weaknesses while maximizing strengths.

A bunch of stuff in Dakota County is going well. Crime is down as are prosecutions; a lower crime rate means fewer costly law enforcement and court actions. Average age is 36, meaning that peak income earning -and the public revenue it generates- is just kicking into high gear. Educational attainment is up. Twenty-eight percent of residents hold a four-year college degree or higher, up from 21% in 1990. A smarter, better educated workforce expands personal and community prosperity.

Thirty years ago, a significant chunk of Dakota County was genuinely rural. Urban and suburban development clustered around major highways and county roads, with northern Dakota County containing the greatest population concentration. Eagan was the new suburban frontier, seemingly doubling in size overnight. Today, county growth has slowed. It's still Minnesota's third most populous county, after Hennepin and Ramsey. Northern areas face the same aging infrastructure and population challenges burdening every other first and second ring suburban community. Growth, it turns out, is the fun, easy part.

Dakota County, like every Minnesota county, is beset with challenges. Some reflect the current recession and economic downturn but others suggest deeper, more complex structural elements. Unemployment is up just as it is across Minnesota. Dakota County's rate is slightly lower than the state's, just as Minnesota's rate is slightly lower than the nation's.

There is a greater range of income distribution, a pattern increasing since 1990. "Despite a shift toward higher incomes," the executive summary's Trends and Emerging Issues, Dakota County, 2010 section reveals, "top wage earners are increasing their wealth faster than the lowest wage earners." Wealth's accumulation into fewer hands creates long-term social disparities. Low income residents risk perpetual marginalization as declining educational investments and human services effectively erect barriers to increased opportunity. Poverty destabilizes communities, turning us against each other.

Living in Dakota County, as is the case across Minnesota, requires private transportation. Its communities were built around the automobile. People dependent on mass transit services face a competitive disadvantage compared to car owners. All vehicle-based transportation, however, depends on well-maintained roads. Decreases in state and federal road funding will increase commute times, further frustrating Dakota County's growth.

Only strong schools, affordable health care, robust transportation infrastructure and effective economic development will move every Minnesota county forward. Dakota County's declining housing market will reverse, allowing homeowners to recapture property value, only when people's confidence in the economy grows. Risk aversion may be a great short-term survival strategy but, as we observe with interest rates, financial rewards don't accumulate to the hunkered down.

Studying this report, I realize that Dakota County is Minnesota in microcosm. All of Minnesota's industries, even mining if gravel pits are included, are represented. Progressive public policy solutions that move Minnesota forward are equally applicable in Dakota County. Traditional Minnesota values built Dakota County and propelled it forward, yielding a powerful lesson to guide future policy planning. Strong communities sustain us. What's good for Dakota County is truly good for Minnesota and vice versa.

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