Seeing strength in numbers, three east-metro counties are talking about forging a partnership to build their economic development fortunes.
Ramsey County wants to join with Washington and Dakota counties to drive a proposal known as East Metro Strong, which is seeking $750,000 in grant money. It would put the counties "in a stronger position to compete," Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County commissioner, told the Washington County Board last week.
"We want to make sure that when we do get that investment it's driving prosperity for all of us," he said.
Washington County has moved strongly toward greater regional influence in recent years, particularly in public transit planning and economic development. The East Metro Strong proposal, while so far not fully endorsed by commissioners, appeals to their determination to take a more active role in attracting businesses to the county and building a stronger tax base.
"It's about time the east metro areas get together," said Commissioner Ted Bearth, a former Oakdale mayor. "Our people are the same people; our goals should somewhat match that."
East Metro Strong seeks to respond to nationwide market trends that are skewing development toward regions that closely coordinate transportation investments — roads, bridges and transit, for example — with plans for economic and community development.
In a letter to the Washington County Board, the Ramsey County commissioners wrote that "the lack of a stronger transit system and coordinated economic growth vision in the East Metro continue to place the entire region at a competitive disadvantage alongside other metropolitan regions that are simultaneously seeking future growth opportunities."
Dakota County recently voted to join the initiative.
McDonough said the tri-county region has major development opportunities at the former State Farm headquarters property in Woodbury, the Ford plant and Beacon Bluff redevelopment sites in St. Paul, the former ammunition plant in Arden Hills and, in Dakota County, the University of Minnesota Outreach, Research and Education (UMore) Park in Rosemount.
"It's the idea that you live, work and play in the same place," said Ryan O'Connor, policy planning director in Ramsey County.
The policy initiative, while lofty, eventually could go to community discussions and "simulations" that show people the potential of transit and related development.
East Metro Strong was recognized on July 19 as a finalist for funding from the $750,000 available in the McKnight Foundation's "Moving the Market" grant solicitation, McDonough said.
Winners will be announced in the next couple of weeks, and McDonough said the money would be used to position the counties for greater economic prosperity.
Washington and Ramsey counties have worked together in recent years to plan major transit corridors. The Gateway Corridor, along Interstate 94 from Woodbury west to St. Paul, would include transit stations at strategic locations where people work and shop. The Red Rock Corridor, from St. Paul southeast through Newport, St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove, eventually would extend to Hastings and possibly to Red Wing, Minn. The Rush Line Corridor, between St. Paul and Forest Lake, someday could link as far north as Hinckley, Minn.
None of the corridors is in operation, although signs of them are beginning to appear, such as construction of a transit station in Newport and commuter buses operating several times a day on what will become the Rush Line route.
Washington County commissioners, although interested in the East Metro Strong proposal, said they wanted further discussion of how it would work in the context of other regional economic development initiatives, such as Greater Minneapolis St. Paul. Also, the county's legislative agenda calls for the state to manage transit funding in the interest of a more comprehensive view.