Resilient Communities project puts students to work solving problems in Carver County.
By Susan Feyder, Star Tribune, September 12, 2015
Some of the metro area’s fastest-growing communities are about to get a jump-start on their to-do lists.
The University of Minnesota’s Resilient Communities Project — a program that gives students real-world experience in the public sector — is teaming up with Carver County, the cities of Victoria, Chanhassen, Watertown, the area’s school district and its major transit provider to work on sustainability-related projects.
The program previously has partnered with Minnetonka, North St. Paul and Rosemount, lending those cities the students’ expertise in public policy, urban planning, civil engineering, horticulture and other areas.
The students aren’t paid, but they earn credits for courses matched with communities’ housing, transportation, economic development and education projects.
“We’re very impressed with the scope of the partnership this year. It’s not just the county, but cities, the local school district and SouthWest Transit,” said Mike Greco, who oversees the program for the U’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. About 450 students are expected to be involved in more than 30 projects during the academic year, he said.
In Victoria, students will help city planners with two projects — developing a trailway-finding signage plan and crafting a program to market the community as an eco-tourism destination.
“We have a number of natural amenities in our city and the surrounding area, and the challenge for us is how to better market these gems,” said City Manager Laurie Hokkanen. The goal is to promote day trips from other parts of the metro area, “convincing people that it’s worth the drive,” she said.
Hokkanen said one strategy would emphasize Victoria’s proximity to other nature-based attractions, like the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.
Victoria is still waiting to see if it also will get students to help with a firefighter-retention study. The paid, on-call fire department currently is well-staffed, but Hokkanen said the city needs to take a closer look at “making it a more rewarding experience so those people will stick around.” Like other far-west metro cities, Victoria has been adding new housing at a rapid pace, increasing the demands on its fire department.
In Chaska, U students will work alongside city planners to evaluate three possible sites for a solar field.
“We get inquiries from residents wanting us to look at solar,” said Toby Saxon, who oversees Chaska’s city-owned electric utility. “This could raise awareness and show that Chaska is trying to be innovative through the use of sustainable power.” The city buys its power from the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which commissioned a power-generating wind turbine in Chaska in 2009.
Hokkanen said all of projects with U students were on the city’s to-do list. “They were definitely on our radar, but we might not have had to staff time to devote to them, and perhaps we might not have had the funds to hire outside consultants,” she said.
Carver County planner Nate Kabat, who is the liaison for the program with the U, agrees.
“Some of these things have some sense of urgency to them. Others will give us information that will help later on down the road,” he said. “In all cases, the projects line up with the goals of the community, through their comprehensive plans or input by their city councils.”