LORI STURDEVANT

WILLMAR, Minn. — The message on Northland Group’s flashing time-and-temperature sign on Hwy. 71 north of downtown here last month seemed to speak not for one business, but for the entire city. “Now hiring,” it said.

Hiring has become difficult in this west-central city of 20,000, the seat of a county that’s home to 24,000 jobs. Too many of them are unfilled, city leaders and employers lament. Willmar is learning that a shortage of workers can be almost as chilling to a local economy as a shortage of jobs.

“We have industry that wants to expand,” Mayor Marv Calvin attests. “We had a business that came to town this summer and was looking to buy some property in our industrial park. They were going to need between 30 and 40 employees. They seemed ready to write the deal until they drove down First Street and saw all the “Help Wanted” signs. They came back and said, ‘No, there’s a shortage of workers here.’ ”

Stories like that are being told in Willmar and elsewhere as demographic change is being felt first and hardest in Greater Minnesota — but it’s on its way to the Twin Cities metro area, too. As baby boomers age out of the workforce, fewer people are in the generational queue to take their places. And too many of those who are in line are insufficiently prepared for the jobs at hand.

But Willmar is also showing that Minnesotans need not slide helplessly into the demographic ditch. It’s a plucky place with an explicit strategy, Vision 2040, for attracting newcomers, luring back young exiles, and making the most of growing racial and ethnic diversity.

It’s a plan that calls on Willmar to do a lot on its own. But it would be much easier to execute if Minnesotans can do again what they’ve done before — pool their resources via state government and spend them strategically for the whole state’s benefit.

Spend on what? Willmar’s visionaries want a four-lane Hwy. 23 to St. Cloud and a faster route to the Twin Cities — just 100 miles but often 2.5 hours away on Hwy. 12. They seek broadband throughout Kandiyohi County and beyond; more and better housing at every price point; appealing parks and amenities at an affordable property-tax price, and a talent magnet at Ridgewater College, the local Minnesota State Colleges and Universities school. Each of those wish-list items would add to the community’s ability to lure and retain workers, they claim.

None of those desires reaches beyond state government’s usual policy range. Neither are they requests that are peculiar to Willmar, or even to Greater Minnesota. Inadequate transportation infrastructure is an impediment to growth throughout the state. Property taxes are too high — and due to climb again next year — in many places, urban and rural.

But the Legislature’s recent record of responsiveness to pleas like those from Willmar has been far from stellar. Partisan gridlock is part of the reason; so, it appears, is difficulty bridging the metro/rural divide.

Take broadband, which Connie Schmoll of the Willmar/Kandiyohi County Economic Development Commission says is crucial to “bringing the young people back.” High-speed Internet is available in the city proper, but not outside it. Schmoll tells of farmers who bring their laptops to the local McDonald’s to check commodity markets; businessmen who work on their iPads in the Spicer Public Library parking lot at night, and a business owner who said he won’t expand in Kandiyohi County unless high-speed data transmission becomes available countywide.

Willmar’s GOP freshman Rep. Dave Baker says he objected unsuccessfully last year when the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee — on which he serves as vice chair — advanced a bill that put no new money into the broadband matching grant program. It was established a year earlier by a DFL-controlled Legislature with a $20 million down payment.

The committee chair, GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo of south-metro Farmington, argued in the 2015 session that the private sector and new technology would soon make the grant program unnecessary. Broadband advocates argued that “soon” was not soon enough for places like Kandiyohi County. Garofalo eventually relented to the tune of $11 million, a paltry sum in the eyes of broadband advocates.

That has left Baker to fend off criticism from the DFL representative he unseated in 2014, Mary Sawatzky. She’s already making the rounds for a rematch, criticizing the House GOP’s broadband record as she does. For his part, Baker says improving broadband service in his district is “my No. 1 goal.” He’ll seek more for broadband grants in 2016, he said, while exploring a reduction in state right-of-way fees associated with extending fiber connections to rural homes and businesses.

Baker also says that he doesn’t want to come back to Willmar next spring without a transportation funding plan signed into law. He insists that it can be done without the gas-tax increase that has been anathema to House Republicans and essential to Senate DFLers. “I think we can get there without it,” he said.

Plenty of his constituents told me they would advise him to cut a deal: Agree to a modest gas-tax increase in exchange for cash to accelerate the completion of a four-lane Hwy. 23. Go along with more dedicated money for transit, too, especially if outstate transit gets a share.

“Without a four-lane road, it’s hard to attract more businesses,” said Bob Dols, the CEO of Northern States Supply, an industrial products distributor. His firm has expanded elsewhere in recent years because Willmar lacks four lanes to facilitate just-in-time shipping, Dols said. That cost Willmar 35 to 40 jobs.

Lately, he’s been just as worried that young workers won’t consider a move to Willmar because of long travel times to St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. “They want to be able to go to a Wild game or a Twins game and come home without slow travel on two lanes,” Dols said.

Attracting and keeping workers — that’s the imperative in Greater Minnesota that can give old state policies fresh impetus. Why send more local government aid to places like Willmar? To keep the city safe and attractive and property taxes low enough to invite entrepreneurs, Mayor Calvin said.

Why ease up on the state’s business property taxes, as House Republicans urged last year? Because high business property taxes make it harder for Greater Minnesota businesses to compete for talent and tenants.

A technology-oriented industrial park that has taken root on the sprawling grounds of the former Willmar Regional Treatment Center might not be there without the JOBZ state and local tax breaks it was granted in 2006, says James Sieben, its president. Complete with a cafeteria, gym and child-care center, the MinnWest Technology Campus aims to compete with the metro area for investment and talent. With 32 businesses employing 450 people and the JOBZ breaks set to expire at the end of this year, the campus is still only about half full.

Why put state money into priming the housing pump? Because the private housing market isn’t working in Willmar, where everybody seems to know someone who didn’t move to town because housing options were too meager. Willmar leaders suspect that the state Housing Finance Agency cares more about housing low-income city dwellers than factory workers in regional centers.

Why keep a higher-ed campus in a small city like Willmar? Because Ridgewater College is Willmar’s best asset as it navigates the demographic dip of the next 20 years. Ridgewater can attract young talent, retrain and thus retain existing workers, and tailor-make the lot of them for the local economy. Though it’s a two-year school, it offers a few four-year programs in collaboration with other schools and stands ready to offer more as demand from placebound students grows.

Ridgewater’s best draw may be its agriculture program, a foundation for agribusiness and ag technology jobs as well as for farm management. It’s the largest two-year agricultural education program in Minnesota and a magnet for students from as far away as the state of Washington.

That’s important to Willmar businesses like Lange Ag Systems, a distributor and installer of livestock barn equipment. Operations manager Ryan Lange prefers to hire workers with several years of experience. But increasingly, he said, he’s looking to Ridgewater and “more on-the-job training” as a way to keep his family business sufficiently staffed.

Ridgewater President Doug Allen said he’s exploring ways to better engage Willmar’s growing Hispanic, Somali and Karen communities. People of color comprise about 15 percent of Willmar’s population and 13.3 percent of Ridgewater’s enrollment this year. Allen is also full of ideas for better linking students with employers and opportunities to be entrepreneurs. He’s involved in the new CEO class — Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities — at Willmar Senior High School, which exposes teens to opportunities in their hometown.

“We used to think in terms of economic development” in Greater Minnesota, Allen said. That was about wooing would-be employers with tax breaks, while trusting that the workers those employers needed would be there. Going forward, Allen said, “we need to flip that around. Our job is to develop an economy — build it from the bottom up.”

That’s not just Willmar’s job. It’s Minnesota’s.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.