Nine candidates for governor shared their views on rural policies and the condition of rural Minnesota during a forum Friday morning at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention. The forum wasn’t a debate. Rather, each gubernatorial candidate had a few minutes to talk to moderator Mary Lahammer, a political reporter for Twin Cities PBS, on a stage in front of newspaper people from across the state, predominantly in rural areas.

With nine candidates from both parties, it would be difficult to report on all the comments from each person and with limited time for each candidate, the majority from the metro area, few specific details on policies were revealed.

However, the forum, co-sponsored by the Center for Rural Policy and Development along with support from Compeer Financial (formerly AgStar), is unique in that it brought candidates for the state’s highest office together in a format that focused solely on rural Minnesota.

Although policy details were scant, some of the candidates on the more extreme sides of their respective parties did bring up policy issues they have been championing in their campaigns. While the policies didn’t specifically address rural Minnesota, the candidates argued they would help everyone in the state.

A couple DFL candidates pushed free education at two-year colleges or technical school because most young people need education beyond high school for today’s skilled jobs. They also supported moving to a single-payer universal health care system to alleviate problems in that area. A couple Republicans argued that reducing regulations, taxes and the public sector would bring more people into the state, solving many problems, rural and urban.

However, rural areas do have some unique problems often strained by a lower population density with residents still needing similar services to urban areas in order to compete in the global economy.

The first issue the moderator brought up was one highlighted in this column two weeks ago — workforce problems caused by an aging population in rural Minnesota, leaving the only opportunity for workforce growth, or even stabilization, with immigrants who rarely locate in Greater Minnesota outside of a few population centers.

Although candidates didn’t want to be pinned down on immigration stances, one candidate noted that it is important to distinguish between illegal and legal immigrants. The Republican noted that throughout the state’s history, many immigrants have shown an entrepreneurial spirit.

Another idea was investment in workforce training centers. Since some of the shortages are in the trades, education was also a topic of discussion by several candidates as the emphasis from college-only preparation in high school is shifting to more options.

One example given was a cooperative project in Fairmont that allows high school students to learn welding and other vocational occupations, sometimes outside the regular school day. That concept has expanded and now a group of superintendents is looking at a regional training center.

Lack of childcare was another topic brought up by Lahammar. Although candidates had few specific ideas on this issue, one example of a successful cooperative project mentioned was in Spring Grove, where a private business was assisted by the city and county to create a day care last year.

Also mentioned, even by one DFL candidate, is that over-regulation may be contributing to the child care shortage that is a problem throughout the state.

Regulations also came up in affordable, or workforce, housing. It was mentioned that regulations add as much as $18,000 to the cost of a new home, so many builders are constructing high priced homes where that additional cost isn’t as much of a factor. Although some things can be done to moderate regulations, one candidate cautioned that completely gutting regulations could lead to safety hazards for new homeowners.

Several people suggested incentives and tax breaks for affordable housing. One novel idea was to get Habitat for Humanity more involved in rural areas or create a program based on that model.

Another issue is broadband, which is important to rural businesses and even rural families since secondary education is becoming so dependent on online learning.

An interesting observation in this area is that broadband, and innovative technology, could also help the health care problem in more isolated areas, another issue discussed at the forum, as doctors from larger medical centers could visit with patients through video technology and even cell phones are gaining the ability to monitor the health of individuals.

Another idea on helping rural communities grow is developing what is known as placemaking, which is a multi-faceted approach to capitalize on a community’s assets, inspiration and potential. Rural communities need to build a sense of place and figure out what makes them unique, something that they need to do on their own.

These more unusual steps, such as innovating to solve a need and creating a community identity, require communities to become active participants in shaping their own destinies. That’s not to say that state government isn’t needed to assist the unique needs of rural Minnesota, but communities that just wait for the governor and state government to solve all their problems may get some much-needed relief, but it won’t be enough to move them forward.

As with so many things, a balance — of state assistance and community initiative — is needed to help solve some of the more pressing needs in Greater Minnesota.