Rhonda Sivarajah knows what many outsiders think of Anoka County. She even has a $40,000 study to prove it.

Rural. Blue collar. Far away.

It’s an image at odds with reality, she said, and one the county is pushing back on as it works to raise its economic profile, attract more businesses and be competitive with its neighbors.

“It’s really time to get at some of those negative perception issues,” said Sivarajah, chairwoman of the Anoka County Board. “It’s a challenge we need to overcome.”

So the county is tackling those issues head-on, mapping out branding strategies and working to define roles among county and city officials when it comes to economic development.

A third of households in Anoka County earn $100,000 or more, a rate comparable to Hennepin County, census data show. While the area’s cohort of high-earners still lags behind that of other suburban counties, north metro leaders say the county is moving in the right direction.

A building boom is adding scores of new rooftops in cities like Lino Lakes and Blaine, where neighborhoods are flush with upscale properties selling for more than $500,000. With million-dollar homes also dotting the landscape, the median home value in Anoka County has climbed to $215,000, led by Ham Lake and Lino Lakes, where the median value is nearly $260,000.

New families are bringing with them an appetite for upscale restaurants and retailers, like Lunds & Byerlys or Kowalski’s Market. Residents say they are drawn to Anoka County by the good schools, lower property taxes and cheaper land and housing.

Jayson Dahl got more house for the buck when he chose Blaine over other suburbs. But while new homes abound, higher-end places to eat and shop remain scarce.

“Everyone has to drive somewhere to do their shopping,” said Dahl, who owns a facility maintenance business in Blaine.

Saturday errands typically take the Dahl family 20 minutes away from their home to Maple Grove, where they can swing by Whole Foods and stop at a favorite eatery in one fell swoop.

Date nights or anniversary dinners? That usually means trekking to Edina or heading to downtown Minneapolis. Grandma’s birthday meal? Tough to find a good spot nearby, said Dahl, 38.

Dahl said he finds the dearth of options surprising, given Blaine’s position as the fastest-growing suburb in the Twin Cities, according to recent Metropolitan Council estimates. It’s home to the National Sports Center, which draws 4 million visitors a year.

One Blaine landowner compares the booming suburb of 64,000 to the Rodney Dangerfield of the Twin Cities, mired in misconceptions that rob it of respect.

Peel away the outdated stereotypes about Anoka County and what remains is the state’s fourth-most populous county, with a southern border that touches Minneapolis — that would be the city of Columbia Heights — and a desire to become better known for the assets that come with its often-overlooked proximity.

“It’s a lot closer than you think,” said Michael Grochala, Lino Lakes community development director. “I think it is a new gateway into the Twin Cities area.”

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At the heart of the latest efforts to challenge long-standing perceptions is a “game-changing” study that puts Anoka County’s economy under the microscope.

The $40,000 study — paid for by the county, MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce and Connexus Energy — examines both the obstacles and opportunities facing the area.

The study marks a novel undertaking for Anoka County in its push to get county officials, city leaders and corporate stakeholders working together on economic development.

“For the first time, you have everybody rowing the boat in the same direction,” said Bruce Sayler of Connexus, a Ramsey-based electrical cooperative that serves the north metro.

The study sets priorities for years to come, from tackling image issues to making sure there’s an up-to-date, countywide inventory of available sites and buildings for when companies come knocking.

While manufacturing remains a key industry, pushing a cohesive brand could be critical to attracting other kinds of businesses and keeping more of Anoka County’s workforce from commuting elsewhere. About 120,000 of the county’s 345,000 residents leave the area for work each day, according to the report.

“We absolutely can compete with any of the other counties in the area,” Sayler said. “We just have to promote in a more effective way.”

In retail, clear messages about an area’s assets can be a crucial step to entice new options to town, said Lori Higgins, president of the MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce: “You need to be known to even have a seat at the table.”

Appetite for upscale

With Anoka County’s commercial hubs mostly centered around Riverdale Village in Coon Rapids and Northtown Mall in Blaine, community leaders say higher-end grocery stores remain high on residents’ wish lists.

From Blaine to Coon Rapids and Andover, the list of absent grocers paints a striking pattern: No Whole Foods, Fresh-Thyme, Kowalski’s, Lunds & Byerlys, Trader Joes. None of them.

News of Hy-Vee breaking into the area has set suburban social media groups abuzz. The Iowa-based grocery chain owns property in Columbia Heights and recently closed on a spot in Spring Lake Park.

It’s not always clear to city officials why stores pick one place over another. It can be tricky to untangle the complex mix of demographics, disposable income, traffic patterns and density that factor into a retailer’s market analysis.

“We just don’t have good information on why certain chains don’t want to locate in our area,” said Grant Fernelius, community development director in Coon Rapids.

For instance, more restaurants long have been on Andover’s wish list. But some wonder if residents would support something upscale if it did set up shop.

A market study conducted in recent years showed that Andover, despite boasting the county’s second-highest median income at nearly $94,000, is characterized as a “value shopper,” said City Administrator Jim Dickinson.

That means midrange retail — neither too expensive nor too cheap — has found the most success there, he said.

Ultimately, each city must decide for itself what kind of businesses and industry to pursue, said Sivarajah. In some cases, that means balancing the desire for new retail with a community’s rural flavor.

Nick Bednarczyk, a financial adviser who works in Coon Rapids and lives in Andover, savors his home’s location minutes away from both his deer hunting spot and Costco.

“I think we’re proud that we’re just a touch country up here,” he said. Affluence there may not be flashy, he said, but “there is more money in Anoka County than people realize. People don’t show it like they do in other parts of the Cities, but they have the money.”