Column: News was disappointing, but good things can still await

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 16, 2002

Friday morning around 7:08 a.m., something amazing happened. The sun rose. It was hidden behind a canopy of clouds, but as the sky lightened and the city came to life, you knew the sun was up there.

It wasn’t the end of the world after all.

The day before, word got back to Albert Lea that Ford wasn’t coming. They were going to build their parts distribution center in Wisconsin, not here. But despite the crushing news, the Earth kept turning and the sun kept shining and life in Albert Lea went on.

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People got up and went to work or to school. Cars filled the streets. People bought groceries or went walking or got together with friends. At the county courthouse, folks hustled in and out, renewing their license tabs or taking care of other business. At Donut Hut, men and women bought their coffee and pastries and chatted or read the paper.

The Apocalypse, it was not.

It almost seemed that way to some people who got their hopes up about this whole Ford thing. And why not? It was a great opportunity. A hundred new families coming into town to work at the warehouse; maybe a hundred new hires made eventually, and at great wages; a nice boost to a tax base that took a hit when Farmland went up in flames. It would have been a good deal for the city.

And it was easy for people to focus on Ford, because it was such a big name and such a public courtship. While most companies keep these kinds of things hush-hush, Ford, for some reason, let it out which three cities they were considering. If not for that, many of us may never have known Ford considered us and passed us by.

At the same time, when they announced that three cities were in the running, we knew immediately that residents of two of those three would wind up disappointed.

Now, as one of those two, the best we can do is be realistic and try to learn from a situation like this.

First, we can learn that landing quality new employers can sometimes be a crap shoot. In the words of Ford’s own local governmental relations manager: &uot;There was nothing the city of Albert Lea could have done differently in this process … our decision was based on a number of factors out of the city’s control.&uot; Our location wasn’t as good for them as Menomonie; certainly not our fault. But the fact that Ford considered Albert Lea is a great sign, and that industrial park is still sitting out there waiting for a tenant. Somebody will build there. It just won’t be Ford.

Second, we can learn that the state’s policies do affect economic development, especially in the rural areas. Tax policies that scare away business hurt efforts to bring in new jobs. The business climate makes a difference. If Ford picked Minnesota &045; whether it was Albert Lea or Stewartville or any other city &045; it would have paid more in business property taxes as well as worker’s compensation. When statewide tax and workers compensation rates are in the neighborhood of 15 percent higher in

Minnesota than they are in Wisconsin, it sets us up for failure in situations like these.

Last, I think we should be grateful that this process took place in the public eye, where it belonged. People are interested in economic development, but so much of the process happens behind closed doors. In this case, Albert Lea had time to have a nice community dialogue about the opportunity. People liked to mention Ford when it came to getting the school referendum passed, and some suggested we should be on our best behavior so we didn’t scare Ford away. Well, it didn’t work this time, but having strong schools is important to the process, and I think that was reinforced by the testimonials of those who heard Ford officials ask about our public schools.

No, we didn’t get Ford. But other things are happening that should be encouraging. Albert Lea has never landed a big Fortune 500 company, but we’ve grown many successful local businesses. That continues to happen. And ten businesses who employ 20 people is as good as one that employs 200. It’s just not as glamorous.

Let’s stay the course and continue on the positive path we’re on, and good things will happen for this city.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at