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THIS YEAR THE TWIN CITIES METRO AREA boasts the kind of economy and job growth that can make economic development seem passé. But such initiatives are hardly out of place in rural Minnesota, where unemployment ranges as high as 8 percent. A new survey by the Blandin Foundation finds one of the top concerns of rural respondents is attracting quality jobs. As the only candidate not from the metro area, Doug Johnson is proudly campaigning on his rural roots and sensibility. Johnson has repeatedly asked the Governor to convene a special session of the State Legislature to help the state's farmers, who have been hurt this season by low prices and crop disease. He says as governor he'd create a new agency to address emergency situations in rural Minnesota.
Johnson: One of the ways we could help farmers keep their land would be to put farmlands into CRP - a federal program - so the land is in use for wildlife. And the government will pay for 50 percent of the crop that has to be put into that land for wildlife cover. I'd like to see the state match that with state funds. That would be one example where farmers have the chance to keep their land.
Johnson says such an agency would offer job retraining for farmers and try to attract other kinds of jobs to rural areas. He says it would require an investment by the state of $100 million, which he would seek to match with private foundation money.
Johnson was in the thick of economic-development strategies during the 1980s, when the taconite industry collapsed, causing severe unemployment on the Iron Range. He chairs the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board which is dedicated to reviving the economy in northeastern Minnesota. He says its most successful economic development initiative was the bailout of Northwest Airlines. As a condition for their funding package, Northwest Airlines created new facilities and jobs in Chisholm and Duluth. But Johnson says government subsidies aren't his only strategy. These days he says it's more a matter of educating students and potential employers.
Johnson: Whenever you're involved with the combination of public and private funds, there will be failures you can't prevent, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep trying. I'm going to be an activist governor that does business recruitment around the country - as well as trying to encourage the fast-growing Twin Cities companies that have rapid job growth to look at rural communities to bring some of their growth there, too.
Johnson: Particularly now that companies are looking for high-tech workers, we need to make sure our educational institutions are producing those workers, that we encourage students to go into those fields for high-paying jobs of the future. It's going to have a combined effect between education and employers in the state to prepare our students for those good-paying jobs.
Johnson says if elected governor, he would meet with corporate leaders and tell them about the advantages of locating in rural areas. He's also committed to relocating government agencies outside of St. Paul, and has been especially critical of agencies with urban addresses dealing with rural issues.
Johnson:The quality of the workforce is very strong in rural Minnesota, and it makes no sense having the DNR headquartered in St. Paul, or the Deptartment of Agriculture in St. Paul. We have to disperse those functions to rural communities in need around the state. Today there's more than 50 good-paying jobs with the Department of Revenue in Ely, Minnesota, and we can do that in the north, southeast, and west if there's a governor who cares about that, and I intend to do that.
Johnson has also endorsed a $7 million increase in advertising by the state tourism office. Both the tourism spending and the funding for his proposed rural development agency conflict with his proposal to freeze state agency spending, but he says he'll trim budgets in other areas to make up for them.