Two counties and five cities in the northeast suburbs are launching a regional marketing push aimed at attracting data centers and technology businesses to undeveloped pockets near Interstate 35E.
Anoka and Washington counties are leading the collaborative pitch to brand the stretch of freeway near Centerville, Columbus, Forest Lake, Hugo and Lino Lakes as the future home of the Minnesota Technology Corridor.
The partners engineered a soft launch last week of the corridor website and plan to ramp up marketing efforts in July.
The marketing highlights the area’s large utility capacity and its proximity to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and emphasizes the tech talent already in the area’s workforce.
“This is one of the few areas left in the metro area within 30 minutes of the Twin Cities that also has over 1,000 acres of available land,” said Jacquel Hajder, Anoka County’s economic development specialist. “We really realized the opportunity we have to market what’s already here. Now it’s about putting that information out there.”
Spreading out that promotional role among several partners offers a significant advantage, said Chris Eng, economic development director for Washington County.
“Usually cities and counties are working hard to make development happen in their own city or county,” Eng said. “But honestly, a site selector doesn’t really care if a site is on the Washington or Anoka County side. ... All five cities and both counties have agreed that we all win when something moves into this corridor.”
Conversations began about a year ago among officials with the two counties and Connexus Energy, which had received requests from tech companies looking for an area with high energy capacity, fiber access and buildable land close to the airport.
From there, the coalition grew to include the five cities and several other energy companies and fiber providers such as Xcel Energy, Midco, Great River Energy, Comcast, CenturyLink, Arvig and Zayo Fiber, as well as Eden-Prairie based data center consultant Parallel Technologies.
Officials with the state Department of Employment and Economic Development and Greater MSP, along with the utility partners, can present materials at trade shows and conferences. Greater MSP, a regional economic development group, recently launched its own effort to recruit technology industry workers and firms; it includes a web campaign and targeted advertising in other U.S. cities.
Even before the soft launch of the website, two recent inquiries were received about possible developments, Eng said.
“We think once we get one data center here, others will follow suit and the corridor will start to fill in,” he said.
Being ready for what’s next
That’s what happened in Ashburn, Va., about 35 miles from Washington. The city has seen an expanding footprint of data centers drawn to the area by nearby population centers, tax incentives and below-average power rates.
While the Minnesota Technology Corridor marketing strategy wasn’t modeled on that of other communities, the partner cities hope the area’s assets will lead to growth similar to that of Ashburn. The corridor’s website lists various tax incentives and data showing that Minnesota’s electric costs are lower than the national average.
The announcement of Google’s planned $600 million data center in Becker, Minn., may also help put the state on the radar of site selectors, Eng said.
“We’ve got the attention now so we want to be ready and available for what’s next,” he said.
The corridor’s partners plan to create a mock data center to run through a virtual approval process, in order to better understand a project timeline and develop a checklist of requirements at city, county, state and watershed district levels.
“The goal is to find our chokepoints and get a better handle on timeline, from inception to project in the ground,” said Dan Undem, assistant to the city administrator in Forest Lake.
While much of the work and the marketing effort is aimed at data centers and technology companies, the available land in the corridor is open to other commercial uses as well, Hajder said. None of the land is under exclusionary zoning, she said.
No matter what businesses fill those sites, the area will see an economic boost from expansion of the tax base and the additional jobs, Eng said.
Seventy-seven percent of Washington County’s working residents leave the county each day for work, and 52% of Anoka County’s workforce commute to jobs outside the county. Forest Lake Mayor Mara Bain said those numbers represent a talent pool that others benefit from.
In addition to its role in the technology corridor efforts, Forest Lake last week rolled out its own website to attract new businesses and support those already there. The site, called Invest in Forest Lake, details available land for development and lists the area’s assets.
A similar website went live earlier this year to promote economic development in Anoka County.
“Everyone has a stake here and there’s a real competitive advantage by having all these resources compiled in a regional marketing strategy, vs. doing this in a silo,” Hajder said. “It took those collective conversations to get something moving and it’s helped these cities realize their value.”