Guest Column: Collaboration is the way to move forward

When I served in Congress, I was dedicated to representing my southern Minnesota district. I was not there to simply vote the party line; I did my best to take into consideration the differing political ideologies that existed at the time among my constituents. As a legislator, I made it a priority to develop partnerships with other legislators — in both parties — to find common ground and to influence legislation to the benefit of the communities I served.

Tim Penny

As divisions in our country and state have become amplified in recent years, I believe it is important to emphasize that collaboration is central to how we will be able to move forward. Here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, collaboration is a key value and a guiding force in how we do our work.

SMIF’s vision is that southern Minnesota will be a prosperous and growing region with vibrant communities, innovative and successful economies and engaged and valued citizens. As we celebrate SMIF’s 35th anniversary this year, and more than $121 million invested in our 20-county region during that time, we know that we would not have been able to make progress on this vision without the many partners that have supported our efforts over the past three and a half decades.

Partnerships have made it possible for SMIF to award 4,300 grants since our inception. For example, we work with Ace Hardware and Arrow Hardware & Paint, to distribute paint to communities for projects like murals through our Paint the Town Grants. We partner with publishers ABDO and Capstone to distribute thousands of books to children birth through age 5 through our Early Literacy Grants (and many more thousands of books get distributed through our early childhood programming). We recently partnered with Region Nine Development Commission and SE MN Together to launch a special Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant program, awarding $160,000 to organizations that are increasing equity and inclusion within communities and supporting entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds.

Since 1986 we have been able to support more than 700 businesses through our lending program because of our partnerships with financial institutions and economic development agencies. We have also partnered with our 30 Community Foundations by providing $823,000 in matching grants over the years, offering direct support to their communities.

Our commitment to collaboration made it possible for us to distribute $12.1 million in COVID-19 response dollars. SMIF partnered with the state of Minnesota throughout 2020 to distribute grants and loans to support children, child care providers, entrepreneurs and communities in our region during this crisis. Most recently we partnered with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to distribute $10.2 million in Small Business Relief Grants, helping keep more than 1,000 southern Minnesota businesses afloat. We also worked with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to award $180,000 in Early Care and Wrap Around Grants to fund early care and education wrap around services for children birth to age eight from underserved populations impacted by the pandemic.

It is impossible to name every partner that has made a difference in SMIF’s work, but we are appreciative of each and every one of them. Without this culture of collaboration, we would have a vision for our region’s prosperity without the means to execute that vision. Likewise, Minnesota — and our country — will make progress when we all work together.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.

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A Candid Conversation with Mayor Najwa Massad

Najwa Massad Mankato Mn“Coming to the United States as an immigrant and establishing a small business shows how we are the heartbeat of this country. I believe in uplifting small businesses because of that personal connection that people get in the hospitality industry—we are the heart of our community.” —Mayor Najwa Massad  

One of the most inspiring political figures in Mankato is Mayor Najwa Massad. I had the chance to speak in-depth with Najwa who uncovered her timeless life story beyond serving as Mayor. Back in 1960, Najwa immigrated from Lebanon when just 5 years old, settling in Mankato with her mother, father, and brother. She attended St. John’s Catholic School, and grew up in a modest household.  

Because the price to make phone calls to Lebanon was expensive at the time, her mother was unable to afford keeping in contact with her sister, and had not seen her in 11 years. After over a decade, she joined her mother and brother on a trip to Lebanon, where she met her husband, John. She continued to stay in Lebanon for her marriage, and had a daughter named Murray. “I’m very proud that [my daughters] go back to that heritage of where they came from such as customs that I carried from my parents, and they are carrying the same customs moving on. Family is # 1, and that’s the most important part because without your family, you don’t have a base,” Massad says. 

A civil war broke out in Lebanon that escalated during their visit to the U.S., so they decided to settle in the U.S. again. It was challenging at first because they had very little money, and her husband could not speak English, so it was hard for him to find a job. Najwa also faced the challenge to break away from pre-imposed gender roles that women could not work, as she knew better than that. She soon got a job at a grocery store with her father’s support. Because of John’s exceptional talent as a master chef, they had to return to Lebanon to sustain their family business. But, this was when the civil war was at its peak. “We had to escape in the middle of the night to get from our hometown to Beirut—we got onto this boat because we had our American green cards. There was an Israeli ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea that we realized was a cargo ship for animals,” Massad says.  

She describes the agony of being cramped together with 250 passengers getting sick in the most unsanitary conditions. On a trip that was supposed to take 2 hours, it took over 24 hours to get to Cyprus. When they got off the boat, the most beautiful sight they saw was the American flag flying on the dock. After spending the night in Cyprus, they got on a plane back to the U.S. and didn’t look back. In 1984, they opened their first restaurant featuring French-Mediterranean cuisine, naming it after their first daughter, Murray. After 24 years, they returned to Lebanon to visit her mother-in-law. “It was surreal because we left Lebanon when the bombs were falling. Beirut was a disaster with rubble everywhere…people were just running in the streets, and it was absolutely horrible. And then we go back, those people are resilient…Beirut was beautiful again, it was gorgeous,” Massad says.  

When talking about her leadership style, she describes herself as nurturing and a good listener. She believes in listening to people with empathy and compassion, regardless of how big or small their issues are. Instead of arguing with them, she wants to be that person who actually understands what they’re going through. As the daughter of immigrants, she is one of those dynamic leaders who understands coming to a new country and feeling like a fish out of the water. People just want to be heard, and they want to know that someone is willing to actually listen to what they say. “When we come into public office, it’s not about us anymore. It’s about the people that voted for us, and the people that we serve. We all have disagreements, but in the end, we have to get back together to see what we can do best,” Massad says.  

A community thrives when people are welcoming and engaged, while being eager to learn about other cultures. Najwa has a burning passion to learn from diverse perspectives as she thinks about how to best serve everyone. She describes how working in a male-dominated space motivates her to be forthcoming and eager to establish her seat at the table of decision-making. “When you shake somebody’s hand, bring them down to their knees,” Massad says. What makes the Massad restaurant business so successful is John’s unique approach to making the delicious shawarma. “Mankato made the shawarma famous, shawarma made Mankato famous,” Massad says.  

Due to the stark contrast in cultural cuisine, John had to develop a clever way to tailor menu items to the American palate while also retaining its authentic flavor. It took a while before Murray’s became successful because they had to learn the ropes of managing a restaurant, since they had no prior experience before. As Murray’s grew popular, they opened locations at the Civic Center, and River Hills Mall, called Massad’s. “To say that we were insane, it was. Mentally and physically, it was challenging,” Massad says.  

Because life was busy raising two girls and managing three restaurants, they eventually let go of Murray’s to build off the Massad franchise. Till this day, their hard work and determination have blossomed into the true vision of the American Dream. Not only are they serving delicious food, but are in the process of bringing innovative ideas to life. For the past 25 years, they poured their life savings and energy into building an automated shawarma machine with the possibility of selling it internationally. “Everything seems to go forward and then ten steps back, but now, we are moving ahead with it. Our dream right now is to build this machine and sell it throughout the Middle East and Canada,” said Massad.  

Right now, they have expanded their Massad’s franchise to eight Scheels Sporting Goods locations, shipping out all the ingredients and teaching workers how to properly make the sandwich. Her younger daughter, Carla, has taken on the leadership role of serving as the CEO for two of their restaurants. Meanwhile, Najwa works full-time (managing and cooking) at their Civic Center location, feeding between 1,000-2,500 people. “Whenever you’re an entrepreneur, always hire someone that’s smarter than you. That’s when you can trust yourself to know [that your employees] are good at what they do. I have wonderful staff, I have excellent staff—they take care of me, I take care of them.” Massad says.  

Najwa is very clear that her business makes up who she is, and she carries these values as Mayor of Mankato. She does her best to coordinate her work schedule to meet with individuals because connection will always be important to her—especially when representing this great city. She also advocates and gets involved with causes that are important to her like YWCA and Greater United Way. “Mankato is a community. It’s a family and this community, and if someone needs something, we’re all there for each other. All in all, this is one damn good community with a heart of gold, and that’s why I wanted to be the mayor,” Massad says. 


By: Monali Bhakta, Lead for Minnesota Fellow
Photo from Mankato Life: Mankato Staple – Najwa Massad & Najwa’s Catering

Get to Know St. James China Restaurant Owner, David Ouyang

By: Brianna Sanders, Region Nine Intern
  A popular restaurant in St. James, MN is the China Restaurant or better known as China Dave’s by the locals. At the restaurant you will often be met by David Ouyang, the owner of China Restaurant since 1994. David came to the United States from Taiwan when he was 26 years old. He and his wife first decided to open up the China restaurant after he worked in Fairmont for a few years. He chose St. James to build a business because there was opportunity there for someone with less experience. In Mankato, where he lives, you often need education in business or experience in order to have a successful restaurant. He started the restaurant to give his five children an education and feels grateful for the opportunities that he and his children have. All five of them have been very successful and have all gone on to get a degree from a university. When opening a business in a rural city, David felt welcomed by the community and has felt like St. James has become part of his family. He has been able to watch children in the community grow up which he says is one of his favorite parts about the community. Although he felt at times it can be isolating in a rural community being only a few people of Asian descent in the area, he feels grateful for the support and for the future of his family. For other new business owners, he thinks that there needs to be more financial support and opportunities and thinks that people within the community can help new business owners succeed.

Four cities earn spots in economic growth program

The Free Press

MANKATO — Montgomery, Mapleton, Springfield and Wells will be the latest cities to participate in a program aimed at supporting economic growth in small towns.

The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) announced it accepted the cities into its Rural Entrepreneurial Venture program Friday. Blue Earth and Le Sueur were among the area cities participating in the program over the last three years.


Stakeholders from each of the four chosen communities will work with SMIF, Region Nine Development Commission and the University of Minnesota extension to promote “sustainable entrepreneur-focused development,” according to a release.

“We are excited to work with these communities over the next three years as they explore different approaches to supporting entrepreneurs and economic growth through this program,” stated Pam Bishop, SMIF’s vice president of economic development, in the release.


“We know from our experience with the first cohort that the REV program will have a lasting impact on how these small towns approach economic development.”

The program’s tools include mapping out impacts over time. Stakeholders will also create an inventory of existing entrepreneurs in their communities.

Montgomery, Springfield and Wells will participate on their own. Mapleton’s inclusion will actually be a collaboration with Amboy, Good Thunder and Minnesota Lake, which are all part of the Maple River School District.

Cities with fewer than 5,000 people within SMIF’s 20-county region were eligible for the program. The program will begin in 2021 and run through 2023.

View the article online here.

2020 Annual Performance Report

The Region Nine Development Commission’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) Annual Performance Report (APR) for Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca, and Watonwan counties is in development and is in the process of being approved. The CEDS is posted in accordance to EDA’s regulations found in the Federal Register at 13 C.F.R. part 303.

As the designated Economic Development District by the U.S. Economic Development Administration for the nine-county area of South Central Minnesota, Region Nine is required to coordinate and develop the CEDS for the region every five years and submit a supplemental annual performance report for subsequent years.

 To view the 2020 APR, click here.

10-21-20 DEI Episode 9-Marjorie Zoe Negron Munoz

Listen here.

Public Hearing Notice

Region Nine Development Commission will hold its annual FY2021 budget hearing at 6:10p.m., Wednesday, June 17, 2020 via Zoom. Email Heather Bartelt, executive assistant, at for more information The proposed budget is $1,093,470.


Region Nine Area, Inc. Utilizes Community Impact Grant From New York Life to Support Surge Youth Leadership Program

MINNESOTA- Region Nine Development Commission’s (RNDC) nonprofit Region Nine Area, Inc. was awarded a $10,000 Community Impact Grant from New York Life which will help support the online migration of the Surge Youth Leadership program. The program fosters self-awareness and leadership concepts in youth ages 12 to 18.


The funding has facilitated the development of the Surge Youth Leadership Program online training for social workers, school counselors, and other administration that will replace in-person train-the-trainer certification courses enabling districts to more easily adapt the program to their students’ needs.


“We are grateful for New York Life’s investment in Surge, which will change many lives for the better,” said Sara Sinnard, Surge program founder. “Without the support from New York Life, we wouldn’t be able to develop an online train-the-trainer program to expand regionally, especially during these challenging times.”


“I’m proud to work for a company that encourages its agents and employees to devote their time, energy and talents to support the needs and priorities of their local community,” said Judy Ringler-Mountain, an agent associated with New York Life’s Minnesota General Office “We are pleased that our partnership will have a long-lasting impact on Surge and the population they serve.”


Over the last nine years the program has primarily focused on female youth. However, with this new backing, the program is aiming to become more gender neutral. Surge is designed to help youth understand their own ability to control their future through their strengths, positive thinking, goal setting, and planning. Program modules include self-awareness, stress management, financial literacy, and other core leadership skills.


Phase one of the migration included producing the online training videos was recently completed. Phase two will focus on the online delivery system. Lastly, phase three will incorporate a new district to implement the program and benefit from the grant, free of cost, for one year. While the grant is now entering the phase two, the Surge Program is already looking to expand into a new district and encourages anyone interested in this program to reach out to Sara Sinnard at for more information.


The Community Impact Grant program awards grants of up to $25,000 to local nonprofit organizations, which are championed by New York Life agents and employees. Since the program’s inception in 2008, more than 600 grants totaling nearly $8 million have been awarded to nonprofits across the county.






Region Nine Development Commission takes great pride in working with and on behalf of counties, cities, townships, and schools throughout South Central Minnesota. Since 1972, being a partner for progress has led to the development of programs and identification of solutions in the areas of community development, economic development, transportation, healthy communities, business development, and leveraging regional resources.


Region Nine Area Inc. (RNAI) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to support Region Nine’s efforts to increase social and economic opportunities for local community groups, non-profits, and government entities in the nine-county region.

Floyd killing speaks to a moral imperative

The killing of George Floyd and ensuing unrest have ripped open the festering wound of racism that pervades our state and nation. This atrocity reminds us of both the deep inequities in our society and the privileged status many of us hold.

I write today because my heart aches for Mr. Floyd, his family, friends, and colleagues. My heart aches for the soul of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota. My heart aches for the millions of black Minnesotans and Americans who so often live in fear and suspicion of the very institutions that are supposed to serve and protect them.


But this isn’t about me. This is about George Floyd and the millions of people who are denied the same rights and freedoms I enjoy. I write today because what happened to Mr. Floyd was not only horrifying and unjust, it was preventable.

He died because those police officers placed less value on his life as a black man than they would on mine as a white woman. Mr. Floyd’s death was preventable because our communities could have and should have been conducting the work necessary to dismantle institutional racism and challenge our own biases.


While we have a long way to go, Region Nine Development Commission has taken steps to address some of these issues through a program called Welcoming Communities, which aims to both restore economic justice by facilitating minority entrepreneurship and improve quality of life by encouraging communities to engage positively with residents of color.

We started this work several years ago, treating it as an economic development issue, just like the need for roads, bridges, and childcare providers. Over time, Welcoming Communities has evolved into a forum to confront biases and learn to cherish the contributions and humanity of all Minnesotans.

This week, we have yet again been reminded why we and our partners must work harder than ever. We must search ourselves, our families, and our communities with the renewed conviction that oppression is the status quo and we are the agents responsible for change.

Ultimately, the goal of this work is to sew justice, dignity and love. We must support our neighbors now more than ever. The Welcoming Communities’ work is no longer just a regional economic development need. It is, as last week’s events remind us, a moral imperative.

Nicole Griensewic is executive director of the Region Nine Development Commission.


-Mankato Free Press article.