Just how does Washington County rank, Commissioner Fran Miron wanted to know, in the metrowide scramble for economic development opportunities?
Business consultant David Unmacht, unveiling his firm’s findings, turned to Miron and four other members of the County Board.
“I think there’s some catch up to do,” he said. “Others have done more at this point than you have.”
The first report from Springsted Inc., which Unmacht represents, concluded that some Washington County cities have “lingering doubts” about county government’s “historical role and past actions” in economic development. Cities also “do not anticipate or expect miracles,” the 11-page report said.
Still, the trend in metro counties is unmistakable. “There is a migration toward more county participation in economic development,” said Springsted’s Tony Schertler, co-author of the report. Springsted’s contract with the county will cost $56,700.
County commissioners have discussed economic development for years but typically snag on how far county government should go to influence business decisions. That’s why they hired Springsted, and the presentation at a recent board workshop addressed that very question.
“In my mind, the better solution is always the private sector,” said Commissioner Gary Kriesel.
Commissioners said they didn’t want to compete with cities for economic growth, or to duplicate efforts, or to establish undesired expectations.
“I don’t think we want to get involved in picking winners and losers,” said Miron, who explained that some cities weren’t looking for growth.
“I think we need to be flexible to meet the demands of our communities,” said Commissioner Autumn Lehrke.
Representatives from several cities echoed those concerns. Larger cities such as Woodbury have city employees designated to coordinate economic development efforts, often in planning functions, but smaller ones such as Scandia don’t have the resources.
“Economic development is the No. 1 priority for the Scandia City Council,” said Kristina Handt, the city administrator. The city recently created an economic development authority and designated Handt to coordinate it, but she said she could use help from the county.
Handt, who attended the Springsted meeting, favors the idea of a public-private partnership where local governments work with the private sector in the same mission. “I think it’s really important that we involve the private sector because they’re the experts in business growth,” she said.
The county could help through tax abatements or by creating low-interest loan programs, “or just having a person as a resource,” Handt said, but she sees the difficulty of addressing cities’ various needs.
“I can recognize that will be the challenge for the County Board,” she said.
The Springsted report drew comparisons between Washington County and St. Croix County, Wis., which has a 20-year-old Economic Development Corporation charged with assisting economic development and capital investment, enhancing the county tax base, assisting businesses in expansion, retention and location, and creating jobs.
In Washington County, average wages of workers rank below housing costs, the report said. “A significant demand for affordable workforce housing exists within the county,” it said.
Springsted’s reports to the county will continue and the County Board took no action.
However, concern remains that Washington County, struggling to define a role in economic development, had better move fast.
“I know this sounds like a broken record, but I always say this is a border county and we have more economic development challenges than other counties,” said Lisa Weik, who chairs the board. “We’ve run the risk of being a flyover zone for development.”