Sensing an upswing in the Minnesota economy, Washington County commissioners and representatives of several cities have launched a possible alliance to attract jobs and a broader tax base.
The economic development meeting last week grew out of some frustration that unless local governments in Washington County show a united front, promoting the county as a place for growth, new businesses might choose to locate elsewhere.
"We don't want to become a flyover zone," said board Chairwoman Lisa Weik, who favors creating opportunities to bring more visitors. "I think tourism in our county would grow jobs and stabilize our economy."
Among the cities represented at the board workshop were Oakdale, Hugo, Lake Elmo and Woodbury. A Stillwater representative, Todd Streeter of the Chamber of Commerce, said forging a common viewpoint could be trickier than it appears.
"Economic development could mean a lot of different things to different cities," he said.
And Craig Waldron, city administrator in Oakdale, cautioned the County Board against starting too many economic development programs to help cities.
"I think you're in a strategic position to pick two or three things and do them well," he said. "Be careful that we don't end up in a competition with each other that flows up to you and becomes a political mess."
Janelle Schmitz, Woodbury's planning and economic development manager, said the County Board should be aware of how the public perceives continual statements that its principal mission is to keep taxes low.
"Sometimes you have to be careful that you get what you pay for — that you pay low taxes and get low services," she said.
County commissioners have grappled for years over how to help economic development, whether through more tax abatements or even a countywide marketing campaign. Now the five-seat board has added four new members in recent years, leading to renewed discussions.
Commissioners Ted Bearth and Fran Miron, elected in the fall and both former mayors, have said they want stronger county involvement in the business of cities.
Gary Kriesel, now the longest-serving commissioner, said the County Board hasn't taken a position on economic development and said no decisions should be made until mayors and city councils participate.
"To start moving in any direction without having them at the table would be a mistake," Kriesel said. "The least we have to do is make elected officials aware of what we're doing."
Bryan Bear, city administrator in Hugo, said several cities in Washington County already see the benefit of pooling resources for their common good. Hugo, he said, has supported projects in nearby Forest Lake and Lino Lakes because Hugo residents benefit as well.
"The way I see it, this is the age of collaboration," Bear said. "We've been generating relationships in recent months and years with all of our neighbors."
At least half a dozen cities now share services of building inspectors in an arrangement that began last fall, he said, and the same approach could be taken with economic development.
Miron, who owns a dairy farm, said creating more sources of tax revenue would be a worthy goal for all local governments. However, the County Board should take small steps before hiring an economic development coordinator or investing money in new programs, he said.
"We still have a very conservative board, and cost is going to be an issue here," he said.