Hoping to jump-start its sluggish economic development efforts, the city of Farmington fired its longtime city planner this month and hopes to find a replacement who can take on a bigger role paving the way for new business activity.
Lee Smick had been city planner since 1997 and in the past several years took on responsibilities for economic development.
One thing the city's mayor, Todd Larson, will be looking for in a replacement is someone with contacts in economic and property development.
"[Smick] did a fine job with the kind of experience she had," Larson said. "I just want someone who knows economic development," he said, and who can take a Farmington-sized city to the "next level."
That "next level" includes redeveloping areas downtown and along Hwy. 3, as well as developing more land for industrial use, which the city is running out of. Another long-standing priority is finding new businesses for a mostly vacant mixed development at Hwy. 50 and Denmark Avenue. Dale Severson, the real estate agent for the property, said "we have interested parties" including a hotel and a convenience store.
City Administrator David McKnight refused to comment on Smick's dismissal but said he would submit new plans for economic and commercial development to the City Council in a month and the city would look for a new head staffer after that. The City Council did not discuss the firing before voting to approve it as part of its consent agenda — a slate of routine items approved with one vote — at its Feb. 3 meeting.
Andy Manthei is a real estate agent for KW Commercial, which lists three properties for sale or lease in downtown Farmington. While none is being sold or leased, "we have inquires," he said, and "activity has definitely picked up." He has been getting more calls about the properties, mostly from "mom-and-pop" entrepreneurs or small medical and chiropractic practices.
The lack of progress is about more than the economic recovery, Manthei said. He said Farmington's location and smaller population will keep it from developing as fast as bigger neighbors to the north such as Apple Valley, which he said have been "seeing quite a bit of growth" in the past year and a half. "Commercial usually follows the residential," he said.
The residential piece is especially important for cities like Farmington, which rely on home property taxes in the absence of enough commercial real estate taxes, which bring in proportionally more money.
"We haven't developed Farmington from a commercial point of view," said Kirk Zeaman, a member of Farmington's Economic Development Authority and co-owner of a Dunn Bros Coffee shop and Ground Round restaurant along Hwy. 3.
Zeaman said that while Farmington is "a very viable community," if a business wants to locate there, it may have to pay to develop the land, adding to the cost. Neighboring cities, he said, often have existing buildings and land or have already set land up with utilities so new businesses don't have to build from the ground up.
"It's going to require the city to invest," he said.
The city isn't without assets, however. Zeaman said the city pays for a countywide service that counsels small-business owners, and the municipal liquor store is offsetting the need for some taxes. The relationships among businesses and residents can also help, he said.
"There's a lot of opportunity," he said. "We really need to get everyone fired up and going."
Smick, the dismissed city planner, agrees with that assessment. She looks back happily on her time with the city.
"I set the stage for what's going to happen in the future," she said of her tenure. "I'm pretty proud of that."
"Farmington has a huge future, really bright, and I hope they can get someone who continues on and brings in the businesses that Farmington desires."
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.