Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #145. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Aug. 2, 2019; in print Aug. 4

“All politics is local” is a staple of analysis and commentary. In 2019’s America it simply isn’t true.

Right now, all politics – at least all the politics we hear about – is national. Donald Trump’s knack for making the whole conversation about him and the presidency is among his most effective – and dangerous – capsizings of American norms.

My subject this month – really local politics – faces strong headwinds.

If we had our political priorities straight, we’d be hearing about the Stearns County Comprehensive Plan all the time. Its very existence is probably news to you.

“Building a Better Stearns County” is the mission. The URL is itself a challenge and invitation to all citizens of the county:

A Comprehensive Plan doesn’t sit on a shelf gathering dust. It shapes a vision 20 years into the future. County staff and leaders consult the plan when:

  • A property owner proposes a new development in a township.
  • Rebuilding a street or constructing a new roadway.
  • Facilitating growth outside of the city boundaries.
  • Planning for county facilities and new buildings.
  • Preserving and protecting our natural resources.
  • Maintaining and investing in the County Park and Trail system.

These are public issues with potential to be contentious, even divisive. Our commissioners ask us to have our say now instead of waiting to gripe later.

The previous Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2008, guided some major actions.

  • Preserved over 1,000 acres of natural areas in the Avon Hills/Collegeville area.
  • Supported agricultural growth in the approval of over 600 new or expanded feedlot operations.
  • Provided landowners and decision makers the tools necessary to protect farmland by conducting hundreds of land assessments.
  • Supported areas of opportunity for renewable energy sources, resulting in over 600 megawatts (MW) of solar generating capacity.
  • Conducted over 18,000 watercraft inspections in 2018 in an effort to prevent and minimize the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS).
  • Constructed park and trail amenities, such as the Lake Wobegon Trail extension into the St. Cloud metro area, a new family-friendly swimming beach at Quarry Park,and the opening of Kraemer Lake Park.

Notice the verbs – preserve, support, provide, conduct, construct – words too seldom connected to political action in our super-polarized era, where undo, abandon, withhold, distract, dismantle prevail.

The county commissioners – Tarryl Clark, Joe Perske, Jeff Mergen, Leigh Lenzmeier, Steve Notch – want to know what we think.

At there are two opportunities for residents’ input.

First is series of what are called five pillars. “During times of conflict, the County can look to the pillars as a way to find common ground and shared values.” You can give your opinion, across the spectrum from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” on the five.

  • Living: the contributions and engagement of every individual;
  • Agriculture: product diversity, innovation, and sustainable practices;
  • Business: a balanced economy that supports our existing businesses, while attracting new business that encourages entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity;
  • Nature: sustainable practices that balance growth between urban and rural communities;
  • Connectivity: infrastructure, facilities and services play an important role in connecting the places where we live, work and play; enhancing these systems will require public and private partnerships that strive to maintain our quality of life.

Then there is an open-ended section to describe Stearns County's challenges, characteristics and strengths. The option is available in 104 languages; the responses are also translated – I’m reminded of the monument in front of the St. Cloud Public Library that displays the flags of the nearly 100 countries from which we hail.

As of late July there were 10 comments under biggest strength, including parks and trails, biodiversity, variety of businesses, family farms, “roundabouts make it easier to navigate.”

There were seven under characteristics, including agriculture (“don’t let homes take over!”), small town feel, taxes comparatively low, good place to raise a family.

Twenty-three comments name challenges, including disappearance of woodlands and natural areas, an aging population, small town business districts feeling deserted and dying, getting the next generation of farmers running viable family farms, “finish road work faster.”

You can make your own initial statement, and/or comment on what someone else has said, and/or view what everybody has said about someone’s initial statement (including your own). The website is all about conversation.

The Stearns County Comprehensive Plan matters to every one of us who is a resident. (Benton County’s Commissioners adopted one on June 4; Sherburne County has a variety of specific departmental comprehensive plans.) In summary, it is "a county-wide effort that engages residents, townships, business leaders and other important community partners to help establish a common vision, develop priorities and identify the necessary steps that will help ensure the County reaches its full potential in years to come."

Not all politics is local, but the politics that is local is worth your time and attention. Shape Stearns: It’s both a privilege and a duty.