Top 3 Vibrant Communities for Feb 23-27

To lift up local community leadership in rural Minnesota, every Friday Blandin Foundation will post the Top 3 Vibrant Communities based on timely news coverage and reader submissions. If you have a vibrant story to share, email

  1. Trout Lake Township

Strong community leadership met opportunity this week as Trout Lake Township announced the activation of its newly constructed Gigabit Internet network built by Paul Bunyan. “The issue came up at a township meeting and residents kept pushing for it,” said Trout Lake Supervisor Jeanne Newstrom in Wednesday’s Grand Rapids Herald Review.

2. Cass County

New research out of the University of Minnesota Extension shows that 80 percent of second homeowners in Cass County intend to move there, with 25 percent considering opening up a new business. This information will help the county as they make choices about how to position their communities as vibrant, viable places to live.

3. Big Stone County

Folks in Big Stone County are gearing up for some positive technology changes coming their way. They recently received a $3.92 million Border-to-Border Broadband state grant to lay fiber optic cable to 1,072 sites in the county and are also a Blandin Broadband Community, looking to focus on opportunities for IT professionals to network and how to better use online media to market itself as a vibrant community.


Top 3 Vibrant Communities for Feb. 16-20

To lift up local community leadership in rural Minnesota, every Friday Blandin Foundation will post the Top 3 Vibrant Communities based on timely news coverage and reader submissions. If you have a vibrant story to share, email
  1. Willmar community leaders gathered this week to celebrate the graduation of the Blandin Community Leadership Program 2014 cohort. Here’s a look back at the news release when this group finished their week-long retreat.
  2. Watertown’s downtown gets connected as they will soon roll out free WiFi access for all visitors.
  3. Owatonna’s Human Rights Commission looks into creating a Welcome Center, similar to the one in Austin.

Photo at Willmar's BCLP graduation. Photo Credit: DAllen, Twitter


Minnesota newspapers recognized for their role in community

Newspapers inform, educate and can even spur change. It takes a special kind of story to touch readers’ hearts and move them to action – even if it’s only to question their own way of thinking.

This is what the Grand Rapids Herald Review editor Britta Arendt was honored for at last month’s Minnesota Newspaper Association’s annual convention. Her piece on mental illness and suicide won her third place in the social issues reporting category. Of the piece, she said

“It is not with the intentions to sensationalize the stories of our friends, neighbors and other sources that we publish stories on these sensitive subjects. Rather, we offer our confidence to them, our attention and our talent to put their stories to words in order to help our readers understand the real roots of real problems in our local communities and beyond… it was a call to readers to be part of good changes needed in life.”

The Bemidji Pioneer and Savage Pacer were also honored for their social issues reporting. Click here for a full list of winners from the Better Newspapers Contest.

Congratulations to all winners!

Blandin Foundation awards broadband grants across rural Minnesota

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. (January 29, 2015) – Blandin Foundation announced today that it has awarded  six grants totaling $113,900 to support rural Minnesota communities as they grow high-speed Internet access and use in their communities.

Long Prairie will develop a business plan to build a fiber-to-the-home network, Project FINE out of Winona County will support refugee and immigrant entrepreneurs looking to develop their online business presence, and Red Wing Ignite is set to host their second-annual Red Hot Hack (an event where tech experts gather to develop applications that address community issues). [note to editor: a complete list of grants follows]

Blandin Foundation also awarded $47,500 to PCs for People as they distribute 500 refurbished computers in rural Minnesota communities. As a long-time Blandin Foundation partner in digital inclusion, PCs for People has delivered 2,500 computers to qualifying households to help enhance recipients’ quality of life by staying connected to the people they care about and the information they need.

“Internet access – and the skills to use it – are essential to sustaining vibrant communities in the 21st century,” said Dr. Kathy Annette, Blandin Foundation CEO. “Minnesota’s rural leaders such as these are rallying their communities to ensure all residents can thrive in a digitally-connected world.”

Blandin Foundation has worked with dozens of rural Minnesota communities since 2003 as local leaders tackle the challenges of connectivity and use of high-speed Internet.  The work of some of these communities was featured in a report released January 14 by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Commenting on the 11 rural Minnesota communities that participated in Blandin Foundation’s Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) program, the report found that the strong local leadership in these communities led to 32,730 hours of Digital Literacy and Workforce and Economic Development training and resulted in 56,663 new household broadband subscribers in rural Minnesota. MIRC was funded, in large part, through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a program of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

This report is being released in support of  President Obama’s announcement of White House plans to support the expansion of a national movement of local leaders for better broadband, and of the Department of Commerce’s new BroadbandUSA initiative to promote broadband deployment and adoption.


“It is gratifying to see the federal government–and the president himself–recognize the important role of local leadership in helping communities secure a technologically-enhanced future,” said Bernadine Joselyn, Blandin Foundation’s director of public policy and engagement.  “Blandin Foundation is honored to support these grantees as they work to ensure that their residents are not left behind.”



January 2015 Broadband Grant Awards

Big Stone Area Growth


Project support to expand the usage of online digital tools through the use of a community web/blog portal, and social media breakfasts as part of the Broadband Program in rural Minnesota.

City of Long Prairie


Project support to prepare a pre-engineering proposal for the City of Long Prairie and surrounding area to build a fiber to the premise network through a public/private partnership as part of the Broadband Program in rural Minnesota.

Mille Lacs County


Project support to conduct a study to provide information needed to install A Fiber to the Premise (FTTP) broadband system as part of the Broadband Program in rural Minnesota.

PCs for People


Project support to coordinate the distribution of 500 computers to eligible recipients in each of ten Blandin Broadband Communities as part of the Broadband Program in rural Minnesota.

Project FINE


Project support for online marketing for diverse businesses as part of the Broadband Program in rural Minnesota.

Red Wing Ignite


Project support for the Innovation to Reality program as part of the Broadband Program in rural Minnesota.



Jasper Journal features two Blandin Community Leadership alumni, brothers and Minnesota city mayors

Last month we wrote a story on two civic-minded brothers who went through the Blandin Community Leadership Program. They later went on to become mayors of Jasper and Luverne, MN.

Earlier this month, the Jasper Journal covered their story. Since the newspaper is not published online, we thought we would share it on our blog. Enjoy!

Civic involvement inspired by Blandin, brothers say

When Mike Baustian is sworn in as mayor of Jasper during the Tuesday, Jan. 13 Jasper City Council meeting, he’ll become the second Mayor Baustian in a city that’s at least partially in Rock County.

Mike’s brother Pat just completed his fourth year as mayor of Luverne and in November was elected to his third term. The brothers each served on their city’s council before becoming mayor, Mike for six years and Pat for eight.

The two men grew up with five sisters on the family farm in northern Springwater Township in Rock County, about 10 miles south of Jasper. One sister died of cancer and the rest moved from the area, leaving Mike and Pat the last of the seven siblings living in southwest Minnesota.

Involvement in local government and politics wasn’t something the Baustian brothers set their sights on as young men.

Pat pursued a career in the military and has served in various capacities for 33 years. He’s now a Chief Master Sergeant with the 114th Fighter Wing of the South Dakota Air National Guard.

Mike stuck with the family business and farms in and near Jasper, raising cattle and hogs and growing corn and soybeans with his wife and son and a few other employees.

“It keeps us busy,” Mike said.

Pat said he’d considered involvement in local government prior to attending the Blandin Community Leadership Program (BCLP) in 1998, but he acted after attending the program.

“If you want to make things better, you’ve got to be involved,” Pat said.

When the opportunity presented itself for Mike to attend the BCLP in 2008, Pat urged him to go. Mike attended and now he too credits the program with his civic involvement.

“Once you go through the program you realize, maybe it’s my turn to help the community,” Mike said.

The program “is designed to develop and sustain healthy community by building on community strengths. Healthy community is a place to live where all people can meet their economic, social, physical, cultural and spiritual needs, work together for the common good, and participate in creating their future,” according to the Blandin Foundation’s website at

“The Blandin Community Leadership Program provides a lot of tools to make your community better,” Pat said.

He credits his childhood on the family farm with instilling him with the tools of responsibility and accountability and his military service with his ability to lead, mentor, learn and supervise. But while the military “can be black and white” in how things are done, he said, the Blandin program taught him that people could have differing opinions and still work together to accomplish goals.

Mike said he’s applied the lessons learned from the Blandin program to form better relationships in business as well as in the community. It’s an experience both men encourage anyone to take advantage of if given the opportunity.

The brothers speak with each other on a regular basis and since they’ve both become involved in their communities, the conversation inevitably turns to the challenges and projects that affect their cities. While the size of their cities varies greatly – Jasper has a population of 633, Lunverne 4,745 – there are similar challenges such as keeping the cities clean and running smoothly, and responding to the concerns of citizens.

The mayors agreed that staying connected and listening to the concerns of the citizens is an important part of keeping their cities running well. Mike said city government is “very local” and citizens should feel comfortable bringing their concerns to the council as they often do in Jasper.

He said his goal as mayor is to respond to those concerns and the needs of the community as well as his perdecessors have. It’s a task he said that will be aided by the quality of employees of the city of Jasper.

First published in the Jasper Journal on January 12, 2015.

Spirit behind gathering was reason enough: digging into how a community can host itself

By John Connelly

In late November, I spent the majority of one mild and perfectly sunny Saturday sequestered deep within the recesses of Grand Rapids High School. There, I immersed myself in assorted conversations with a diverse group of nearly 100 other Itasca County residents.

As a guy who places a high value on his limited leisure time – and tends toward introversion – why would I choose to spend precious weekend hours this way? I could have gone for a jog. Or cleaned out the garage before the lockdown of winter. Or identified some groundbreaking strategies to perfect my skills as a husband and father.

Instead, I spent the day at the high school, sitting on semi-comfortable cafeteria furniture. The event I was attending was called the Grand Gathering of the Itasca Area. A group of community volunteers designed the affair as a county-wide conversation about a simple but intriguing question – What is the future that we want to create for ourselves? That question piqued my interest, enough so that I signed up to participate without really knowing how things would work.

What was interesting about the Grand Gathering was that, other than the framing provided by the posed question, there was no set agenda. No specific organization hosted it, so it wasn’t developed with the objectives of any one group in mind. In addition, specific topics to be discussed weren’t predetermined. The idea was simply to attract a broad group of local stakeholders and to provide them with the structure to talk about the topics important to them. The invitation was literally wide open.

The format used during the Grand Gathering was called Open Space Technology. In this approach to group conversations, a facilitator invites participants to post topic ideas in a marketplace. Other participants are then free to decide which conversations they want to join. The conversations are harvested in a way that summarizes them for all. Open Space is just one technique that many Itasca County residents have learned during the Art of Hosting trainings provided in the area since November 2013. The trainings have been funded by Blandin Foundation and facilitated by the Meadowlark Institute.

During the Grand Gathering, attendees enthusiastically proposed 40 different topics that fell within broad categories of community, people, environment, and economy. Some ensuing conversations were highly conceptual and will likely go no further. Others, such as a conversation about health services for veterans, have already led to action.

A final report about the Grand Gathering was just released, and it captures the essence of the many conversations that took place that day. Still, the tangible outcomes remain to be seen. New relationships were definitely formed. Shared passions were certainly identified, and some folks are already talking about the possibility of a Grand Gathering 2.0.

What is most remarkable to me is that the event ever happened at all. I’ll repeat it again; The Grand Gathering wasn’t organized by any one business, agency, or non-profit, though some did get behind the event to help make it a reality. It was developed by individual volunteers who had the spirit, passion, and desire to make something authentic happen. What’s more, the creators of the event weren’t attached to outcomes. Instead, they were excited about the possibilities.

How often does something like this happen in a society that begets competition and seems to imply that we all live and die by brand? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t happen very often. Those versed in all things Art of Hosting believe the Grand Gathering was the first time a community in the United States has used Open Space to host a conversation about and for itself.

And how does it happen? Well, in this case, it started with one person. Doesn’t it always? An individual participated in the first Art of Hosting training in Grand Rapids and asked – How can we become a community that hosts its own conversations? One by one, other community members joined her. They brainstormed ideas and invited input from others. They developed a planning committee, and they recruited financial, administrative, and promotional support from local organizations.

In the end, the Grand Gathering was pulled off by a group of people who cared about their community, who wanted to do more for it, and who were willing to take a risk.

Their commitment was inspiring. That’s the real reason I was there. If others can find the initiative to care and the gumption to act, then so can’t I?

John Connelly is a resident of Grand Rapids and participated in the Art of Hosting training in September and the Grand Gathering in November 2014. He works as a freelance communications consultant for a variety of non-profits and local units of government including Itasca County.


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Local leadership recognized as key to increasing national broadband access and use

The power of community leadership took center stage in President Obama’s preview of his appearance yesterday in Cedar Falls, IA, where he talked about his plan to increase access to affordable, high-speed broadband in rural and urban communities across the country.

The President featured Cedar Falls, or Iowa’s first “Gigabit City,” in the preview, comparing the 40,000+ person town to international metropolises like Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris. Community leadership – he said – is the force that propelled Cedar Falls forward to become a global leader in broadband.

“Citizens got together and made the investment to bring competition in and make sure Internet speeds were just as fast as anywhere else.”

This type of local leadership is crucial to advancing broadband access and use and is happening in small communities all over the country.

Blanketing the state from Thief River Falls to Winona, 11 rural Minnesota communities were highlighted in a report released yesterday by the the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, in conjunction with the President’s visit. The report highlights the “tremendous social and economic impacts” of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a program of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in which Blandin Foundation was a grantee. Strong local leadership in these communities led to 32,730 hours of Digital Literacy and Workforce and Economic Development training and resulted in 56,663 new household broadband subscribers in rural Minnesota. Some specific examples include:

  • Boreal. TV in Grand Marais, a new local access online video site that connects residents of and visitors to this far-flung northeastern Minnesota community with local activities from government meetings to local sports events.
  • Lac qui Parle County in far west-central Minnesota created the Computer Commuter - a mobile computer lab (retooled hotel shuttle bus) that brings free broadband access to communities in one of Minnesota’s most sparsely populated regions.
  • The University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality conducted training for more than 2,400 small rural Minnesota businesses on how to use high-speed internet for marketing, sales and operations. Businesses that participated in training had a bigger digital presence than those who did not, according to CV’s follow-up research.

Just last week, Blandin Foundation awarded nine broadband grants for projects that help rural communities stay competitive in a digitally-connected world (stay tuned for more info). From hackfests that encourage tech entrepreneurship to training classes that help businesses stay competitive, we’ve learned in our 11 year working with communities to boost their access and use of broadband that it all comes down to community leadership.

This learning was reflected in President Obama’s remarks yesterday when he unveiled some details on his community-based broadband plan. Called out in a White House press release, one part of the plan includes “Expanding the National Movement of Local Leaders for Better Broadband.”

For a full look at what the national broadband conversation means in Minnesota, check out the Blandin on Broadband blog.


A new year. A new day for vibrant communities.

It’s 2015 – a new year full of possibility and hope for our work together in building vibrant rural communities!

It’s amazing to look back on the things we’ve done together in 2014. Together we’ve trained rural leaders, increased Internet use in families, schools and businesses across rural Minnesota and we’ve worked on projects that expand opportunity for many Minnesotans.

Here’s a quick rundown of our some 2014 blog highlights:

Let’s continue to imagine, lead and grow vibrant rural communities together in 2015!

Looking to the future of rural community leadership

Leadership Recruitment Coordinator Becky Adams talks to a group of community leaders

Leadership Recruitment Coordinator Becky Adams talks to a group of community leaders

The average rural Minnesotan currently wears six (and often more!) leadership hats and as the rural population ages, the leadership demand is only increasing. Leadership capacity is maxed out, said University of Minnesota Extension sociologist Ben Winchester during a fall 2014 webinar. With demand increasing faster than supply, it’s important to understand, and plan, for the future of rural community leadership.

We’ve been doing this for some time at Blandin Foundation through our Rural Pulse survey. Asking the question, “Would you consider serving in leadership if you were asked?” we’ve been able to ascertain rural Minnesota’s appetite for entering into emerging leadership opportunities. Just to give you a taste, in our 2013 Rural Pulse, 34% of respondents answered yes, 19% said maybe and 47% said no.

In the same webinar, Winchester pointed to Nebraska’s Rural Poll as a measure of how many current people serve in leadership roles, using the question: Do you think you’ve held a leadership role?

While the questions seek different answers, the way they’re framed got us thinking – how do community leaders emerge? Are they asked or do they step up?

This might seem like an irrelevant question – either way we get leaders, right? Wrong. The way communities think about leadership affects how they prepare for the future. If a community generally believes that leaders will “step up,” they will create conditions for leaders to emerge. This could be an open call, a public meeting, a notice in the paper for a leadership role, etc. In this instance, the community’s attention would be directed to selecting the right person who “stepped up.”

Alternatively, if a community believes that leaders need to be asked, more time and attention might go into developing personal connections with potential leaders. This could lead to leadership program development, mentorship opportunities, networking events and more.

The issue really traces back to the age-old question: are leaders born or made?

In a recent Outposts blog, Blandin Foundation Leadership Recruitment Coordinator Becky Adams said, “There is a lot of research (and personal witness) that could bend your thinking either way but this is what I believe from working in rural communities throughout Minnesota. They are both – people have personality traits and life experiences that give them the ability to lead. And some have the courage to take the first step.”

In a 2012 Center for Creative Leadership study of 361 business executives, 19.1 % of respondents believed that leaders are born, 52.4% believed they are made and 28.5% believed they are equally born and made.  Just like the division in the perception of leadership, genetic research also shows a leadership split – 30 percent resulting from genetics and 70 percent as a result of lessons learned through life experiences.

So if 70 percent of the qualities of a leader are cultivated through life experience (hence they’re 70 percent “made”), what should we be doing in rural communities to ensure we have enough leaders for the future? Post your thoughts below!

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Education Grants open for all Itasca area students

You’ve heard it before, the routine interview question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” As you think about that question today, if the title “college graduate” is bouncing around in your head, then listen up! This is for you!

Whether you’re just about to graduate or took a few years off to work, Blandin Foundation Education Grants can help you get the training you need for the future you want. These grants are for every Itasca area student who wants a better future. You don’t have to be the top of your class, or an athlete, or on the yearbook staff.

By awarding $1,000 to $4,000 grants,  Blandin Foundation Education Grants can help you “fill the gap” between the cost of your chosen school, and the amount you or your family can afford to pay. If you graduated from Bigfork, Blackduck, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, Deer River, Grand Rapids, Greenway, Hill City, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Northland, Northome, Northern Lights Community School, or a homeschooled student who would have graduated from one of these schools, you’re eligible to apply. And you can go to ANY accredited community college, certificate program, college or university in the United States!

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Start an online application. Visit to link to our online application. HINT: The earlier in the year you do your taxes, the sooner your Education Grant application is complete.
  2. Fill our the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is important! It helps determine your financial need.
  3. Provide a copy of your Student Aid Report (SAR) to Blandin Foundation.
  4. If you make any corrections to your SAR, please send us a corrected copy.
  5. Send us your 2014 tax returns.
  6. Make sure you give the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend all the papers they need.
  7. Make the deadline – May 1.

That’s it folks! Click here for more, in-depth information about our Education Grants Program.


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