Leaders say area can compete in economic game

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 16, 2002

When Brad Arends graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1977, the school had 1,700 students in three classes. His graduating class had 602 students.

&uot;Our graduating class was so big, I didn’t even recognize a lot of these people,&uot; Arends said.

Albert Lea’s population at that time: roughly 18,000.

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This year, the graduating class has 280 students. The high school has a total of 1,160 students in four classes.

Albert Lea’s population today: roughly 18,000.

&uot;What should that be telling us if we want to continue to grow?&uot; Arends, the incoming president of Greater Jobs, Inc., asked during an address at the organization’s annual meeting Wednesday. &uot;How do we attract those graduates who have left town? How do we lure that young family who is tired of the hustle and bustle of a major metropolitan area?&uot;

Arends, of Alliance Benefit Group, was among several leaders at the meeting who said that despite a tough year that included the Farmland fire and a nationwide economic downturn, Albert Lea is poised to improve and find ways to attract new residents and business &045; if it can just capitalize on its assets.

Arends spoke strongly of Albert Lea’s need to distinguish itself from other communities in the area, and pointed to an array of strengths &045; like the lakes, medical facilities and retail growth &045; it could build on.

&uot;We need to dismiss the belief that we are 35 miles too far south of Minneapolis, that we are too close to Iowa, that we will always be second-tier,&uot; Arends said.

Taking the reins of an organization dedicated to economic development, Arends said leaders must think beyond the traditional economic-development packages that try to lure business by offering land, buildings and tax breaks. Albert Lea’s competitors all offer the same kinds of packages, so the key will be offering something others cannot, he said.

Outgoing President Steve Waldhoff of Albert Lea Medical Center said serving his one-year term taught him that economic development takes time, and that the best approach may be to nurture homegrown business, which is the purpose of the new Albert Lea Business Development Center (ALBDC), a joint venture of Greater Jobs, the Albert Lea Port Authority, Riverland Community College and the Ladwig Companies.

&uot;I’ve learned the best place to start is here at home,&uot; Waldhoff said.

Studies show that most new business development in the county comes from people who are familiar with the area, he said. That means the burden is on residents to give a good impression of the city.

&uot;You and I are everyday ambassadors for Freeborn County,&uot; he said. &uot;You and I need to be out there with colleagues, other businesses and strangers promoting Freeborn County.&uot;

He said creating a good business climate is the most important task for local leaders, so when an entrepreneur or business owner is interested in Albert Lea, the development is welcomed. That means offering good schools, affordable housing, quality health care, shopping and entertainment opportunities.

Waldhoff challenged each person in attendance to contact Greater Jobs administration with the name of one person they know who may be interested in creating business development in the area.

Executive Vice President Pam Bishop said Greater Jobs’ work with the ALBDC, which helps fledgling businesses grow in a nurturing environment, will help continue Albert Lea’s tradition of homegrown businesses. She also pointed to the First Impression Committee’s work to erect three new entrance signs for the city. The group is raising funds to pay for the signs.

&uot;I believe we are on the right track, and we should feel good about our accomplishments today,&uot; Bishop said.