Economic development: Some say it works, others disagree

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 24, 2002

Henry Clotfelter walks around the GameTec Inc. plant floor, pointing out what machines do what. Workers are running each machine, making pull-tabs, lottery tickets, and other related game pieces.

GameTec opened in 1992 with a low-interest loan from the city of Albert Lea. A group of New York developers approached the city wanting to start the business. According to Clotfelter, who is the plant manager and came to the company a few months after its opening, the city was very helpful in starting the business.

&uot;They were very instrumental in getting GameTec started,&uot; said Clotfelter. &uot;Since the beginning, the city has always been willing to go the extra mile for us.&uot;

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That willingness on the city’s behalf is obvious. GameTec leases their factory from the city at a low rate; the city installed air conditioning, heating and humidification control; and the city has given GameTec loans and helped to get business for them when times were rough.

In 2001 the city added on a warehouse for the storage of all of the company’s products to allow them to take better control of distribution.

Clotfelter said the help has been extremely beneficial to the company and said the company might not have made it without the help of the city.

&uot;They could not have been more supportive,&uot; he said.

Tough years

The city of Albert Lea has been through some rough times in the past 20 years. In the 1980s it lost two large employers, Queen Products and Universal Dairy, and came close to losing a third to bankruptcy, Wilson and Co.

&uot;When Wilson came close to bankruptcy, when they cut their wages, it had a devastating effect on the local economy,&uot; said City Manager Paul Sparks. &uot;Those were some very hard times.&uot;

The city helped Wilson to get back on its feet by helping to finance modernization of the plant. The city did the same for the company as it changed hands and had other financial difficulties.

Finally, in 2001 a fire put the plant out of commission, and it will be torn down over the next few months.

After two bankruptcies it was clear that the packing house was most likely not going to survive much longer. So why did the city keep putting money into it to help it get back on its feet?

&uot;What we did by supporting the packing plant, was to help cushion the blow of our town’s other economic troubles,&uot; Sparks said. He pointed out that with the other losses of businesses in town the economy was based on the plant. &uot;We had to help the economy survive until (the plant) was no longer the core.&uot;

The plant, according to Sparks, kept the economy from totally breaking down during the rough period. Meanwhile, the hospital, along with many smaller businesses in the community, grew. Soon, the plant was no longer the core, and the economy was able to take the blow of the fire much more easily than it previously could have.

The diversification of the economy, according to Sparks, was the most important part of the process, and he believes it has been a turning point for the local economy to rise again.

Through Greater Jobs Inc., the new business development center and the city’s Port Authority, Sparks said the city has been active in business development, for cases such as GameTec Inc.

Through tax-increment financing districts, low-interest loans, city-owned leased warehouses and industrial parks, the city has taken strides to recruit, retain and launch businesses.

But have there been shortfalls in the city’s economic development plans?

Uphill battle

When Don Sorenson, owner of Cafe Don’L, decided to open a second restaurant at the Northbridge Mall seven years ago, he said his experience in dealing with city inspectors was negative.

&uot;When we made plans to build this facility we did the blueprints and everything that was needed to be done,&uot; Sorenson said. &uot;The city signed off on it and approved the project. Then, halfway through the construction, the city came back and changed their mind.&uot;

Sorenson said the changes tacked on a substantial amount of extra cost &045; something he said could have been avoided if the city had told him about the flaws in his blueprint.

He added that the changes were due to changes in building code, but said that the changes were not state-mandated at the time of his build, but were to be implemented in the future.

&uot;If I had known what a problem expanding my business would be,&uot; Sorenson said. &uot;I would have walked out half way through the project.&uot;

&uot;This is not just a problem I’ve experienced,&uot; Sorenson said. &uot;It’s an ongoing situation in the city, it’s a fairly common thing.&uot;

The restaurant owner rattled off the names of other businesses he says h had similar problems in expansion.

&uot;The city administration does not make it easy for a local business to expand in Albert Lea,&uot; Sorenson said. &uot;Many do not feel welcome here. It’s as if the city administration is against you.&uot;

Sorenson said the city has done some positive things in economic development, but has lacked support for local businesses.

&uot;The easiest way for Albert Lea to grow is to help local business grow,&uot; he said.

Sparks said that the city had no choice in the Cafe Don’L matter.

&uot;We have to enforce the building code,&uot; he said. &uot;It is state law that we do that. It’s not optional.&uot;

Sparks said that code has to come before business development because protecting public interest is the most important duty of the city.

In most of the cases like the ones Sorenson spoke of, the business owners have become committed a plan before getting city permission, Sparks said.

According to Sparks it is not the intention of the city to stand in the way of small businesses and said they hope to encourage small businesses.

What next?

The future of the Albert Lea economy is uncertain. The old Farmland building is coming down and the company is, as of now, most likely not to build here again. There is a possibility that Ford Motor Company could build here. But all in all there are no certainty in the future.

Is the city doing what it can?

&uot;I think people need to be more patient,&uot; said Sparks. &uot;These things happen gradually.&uot;