120 gather to discuss economic development

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 27, 1999

Community leaders aren’t doing too bad of a job in attracting business and industry to the community, but future growth will require increased efforts.

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

Community leaders aren’t doing too bad of a job in attracting business and industry to the community, but future growth will require increased efforts.

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While some residents think there’s a lack of recent development, that’s what Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development Commissioner Jerry Carlson told about 120 people at Riverland Community College Tuesday.

He joined eight local panelists who spoke at a town meeting held to discuss growth of the community, clear up any misperceptions and to engage residents in dialogue.

The two-hour event was sponsored by Greater Jobs, Inc. and allowed residents about an hour to address the panelists, who described local efforts and said attracting development, people and tackling the current housing shortage and low unemployment rate are issues the entire community must face.

&uot;Obviously, this is an important topic,&uot; Carlson told the crowd after listening to local efforts. &uot;We have 120 people who came out here tonight. I have heard a lot of good news, but there is obviously a lot of dissatisfaction with the results.&uot;

But Carlson added, &uot;They have been more successful than all of you give them credit. The many communities that I have visited would not have the score card of successes that you have.&uot;

Before the question, comments and answer portion of the meeting, Carlson said the Ventura administration is &uot;very concerned&uot; about development in rural Minnesota.

He said low unemployment and the agriculture crisis now facing communities like Freeborn County are problems Gov. Ventura targets in the trade component of his &uot;Big Plan,&uot; a broad outline of goals for his administration.

In this plan, Ventura’s goal is to make Minnesota a &uot;world competitor.&uot;

&uot;You can’t focus on the past, but the future,&uot; Carlson said. &uot;Your economic development community will have to be more focused. Identify your leaders and goals and work behind them.

&uot;My last piece of advice is to really engage in very blatant self promotion and maybe be unMinnesotan in your self promotion,&uot; he said. &uot;This is the type of promotion that is really going on out there. You have to be more involved.&uot;

He said the DTED will act as a partner with the community, but the community must lead the effort.

Local efforts

To accomplish that, many people at the meeting spoke of a need for a written community vision, where does the community want to be in 20 years and how does it get there?

&uot;There are groups within the community that address certain areas of development,&uot; said Riverland Community College President Gary Rhodes. &uot;But I haven’t seen a master plan that will see where the community wants to grow in 20 years.&uot;

Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce President Stephanie Brand said there have been efforts in the community to establish a master plan, but volunteers lost interest after the discussions.

&uot;A large group of us met at the Days Inn four years ago,&uot; added Gene Smith, Freeborn County administrator. &uot;What happens is that you tend to lose the momentum. What we have to do is break out of that. We’re all partners in this.&uot;

Smith agreed with comments that local governments must find ways to end disagreements.

But he said the City Council and Freeborn County and township governments don’t always disagree.

&uot;A lot of what you see in the public eye is the controversial side of what we do,&uot; he said. &uot;There are a lot of things we all agree on. We actually talk to each other. But we need to be able to sit down and talk issues out.&uot;

He said the proposed Bath Road interchange is one of few examples where two local governments disagree; the city favors it and the county opposes it.

&uot;Does that mean we don’t get along, no,&uot; he added.

While the county is a new player in economic development compared to the city’s 20-year $20 million effort, he said county commissioners are now increasing their efforts.

County Chairman Brian Jordahl said economic assistance to the Exol plant is just one example; the county is also now working with Greater Jobs, Inc. to develop property around Exol for agricultural-related industries.

With both industrial parks in the city nearing capacity, the city-controlled Port Authority is also partnering with a private developer and Greater Jobs Inc. to develop a third park in the city, but industrial recruitment and economic assistance won’t solve two crucial problems: a lack of available workers and the current shortage of affordable homes.

&uot;What has happened here in Minnesota is unemployment has been replaced with underemployment,&uot; Carlson said. &uot;These are very critical issues they (people who spoke at the meeting) identified. Where is the work force of the future going to come From?&uot;

To address these problems, the Chamber has established a housing committee, and volunteers travel to other communities to attract workers, Brand said.

But she agreed that further efforts are needed.

Asked about a coming low-to-moderate 24-unit housing development at West Ninth Street and Highway 65, City Manager Paul Sparks said its addition won’t solve the housing shortage.

&uot;The housing problem is quite complex to solve,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s unlikely that we can build enough to satisfy the housing problem. We have to figure out how we can get the market down to what people can afford.&uot;

Again, he said that will take a cooperative effort, he said, referring to what seemed like the dominant theme of the meeting.

&uot;We all need to adopt the attitude that we are ready to move forward,&uot; added Mike Moore of Minnesota Corrugated Box. &uot;Why didn’t we grow? They ought to do something. Who are they?

&uot;It isn’t about the city should,&uot; he added. &uot;It isn’t about the county should. It isn’t about Mike Moore should. It’s about we all should. We have to work together.&uot;


The first to speak, Albert Lea Mayor Marv Wangen said people were overly optimistic about the two interstates in the area.

He said people often ask, &uot;Why … haven’t we grown to 40,000 people? The implication is we have done something wrong.&uot;

But he said interstates alone don’t attract industry and people. Albert Lea only reached the interstates within the last couple of years, he added.

The intersates are also not equal in the amount of traffic use, with more traffic using I-35.

&uot;Freeways are only one of many things businesses look at,&uot; he said, adding proximity to markets, tax rate, population, the labor market and spendable income are other factors. &uot;We had difficulties competing with the metro area.&uot;

Albert Lea also lost about 2,000 jobs during the ’80s when Wilson’s and other industries closed.

The job losses were beyond local control, he said, adding a diversified economy has added 3,000 jobs to the community during the ’90s.