*Below is a column by Heidi Omerza, CGMC president and a member of the Ely City Council, and Bob Broeder, CGMC vice president and mayor of Le Sueur. As of Sept. 22, the column has appeared in the St. Cloud Times, Rochester Post Bulletin, Winona Daily News and Albert Lea Tribune.

As candidates fight for our attention, Greater Minnesota must fight for theirs

At this time in the election cycle candidates for political office are desperately fighting for our attention with a barrage of television ads, appearances, mass mailings and all the other hoopla that comes with trying to forge a winning campaign. However, let’s not forget that now is the time that we must fight for their attention as well.

For many of us in Greater Minnesota, there is a real and constant struggle to avoid being overlooked by state leaders. While parts of Greater Minnesota appear to be recovering from the recession fairly well, serious problems are looming that need their attention.

Evidence shows that without a solid plan for the future, rural communities will fall further behind the metro area due to unique concerns such as inadequate infrastructure (including a lack of broadband access and deteriorating roads), a rapidly aging workforce and a shortage of skilled workers to replace them.

We need a governor and legislators who will address these concerns proactively. As candidates make their rounds to community meetings and debates, citizens in Greater Minnesota need to press them for solutions on our most pressing issues:

Lack of adequate broadband holds Greater Minnesota back

Better broadband access is desperately needed in Greater Minnesota. Last session, the legislature responded by creating a $20 million broadband grant program. This is a start, but it’s only a drop in the bucket of what the actual need is in Greater Minnesota. To truly show a commitment to making border-to-border broadband a reality, the governor and lawmakers should support the recommendation of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband for $200 million for broadband funding in the next biennium.

There is also a question of how the money will be spent. It is imperative that the state set the right tone for the new grant program by prioritizing projects that have the greatest impact on economic development. Rather than connecting isolated areas, funding should be driven toward communities where high-quality broadband access will benefit the most people and ignite economic activity.

Better roads needed to support economic growth

Poised to be one of the top issues of 2015, it is clear Minnesota needs a comprehensive plan for transportation. As plans take shape, the governor and legislators must focus on the needs of Greater Minnesota as well as the metro area. Funding for local roads is a top concern for cities, which need more funding to supplement local efforts to repair deteriorating roads.

The Corridors of Commerce program, which aims to improve the flow of commerce on Minnesota’s state highways by funding projects that increase capacity and remove bottlenecks, is also key to improving economic development in Greater Minnesota. The need is there: last year, more than 120 projects applied for $300 million in available funding and only 10 were selected. We need leaders who are willing to put adequate resources—at least $200 million a year in ongoing funding—into this important program.

Shortage of skilled workers limits Greater Minnesota’s potential

Throughout much of Greater Minnesota, the problem isn’t a lack of jobs, but a shortage of skilled workers available to fill them and a dearth of housing for them to live in. Greater Minnesota has experienced a 40 percent increase in job vacancies since 2006, while vacancies in the metro area have declined 5 percent in the same time period, according to data from the Department of Employment and Economic Development. Moreover, the workforce is aging more quickly in Greater Minnesota. There are currently 27 counties in Greater Minnesota where one in five residents are over the age of 65 and that is projected to grow to 54 counties by 2020, according to the state demographer.

If the state fails to address these mounting concerns, Minnesota will miss out on opportunities for economic growth. State leaders need to support the development of programs specifically geared to meet Greater Minnesota’s workforce needs by training workers to fill the open jobs and making sure they have somewhere to live near where they work.

Over the next six weeks, candidates will try various tactics to get our votes. Instead of simply allowing them to share vague ideas about their priorities, we urge you to ask tough questions and demand real answers about the issues that affect Greater Minnesota. The state’s future depends on leaders who have a clear vision for a vibrant and prosperous Greater Minnesota.