Anoka County has produced a Miss America, an Olympic gold-medal winner and a best-selling author who tells of a place where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average."

So why does Anoka County -- home of the National Sports Center, Tournament Players Club and, opening next month, state-of-the-art Running Aces harness-racing track -- appear to struggle with an inferiority complex?

"There is a perception that Anoka County is kind of separate from the rest of the metro area, in terms of being different," said Tony Palumbo, an assistant Anoka County attorney and longtime Blaine resident.

Ask someone from Minneapolis or St. Paul and they're likely to describe the county that gave us former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, Olympic soccer goalie Brianna Scurry and media star Garrison Keillor as "up there," as if the county was in another solar system, said Anoka County Administrator Terry Johnson. "We prefer to think we're tops in the metro," said Johnson.

"That image that we're halfway to Duluth is way off," said Karen Skepper, the county's community development manager. "Check any map."

The county's movers and shakers had hoped that a Vikings stadium and $1.67 billion Northern Lights retail/entertainment complex would put the county on the map.

The county offered the Vikings $280 million toward the stadium in Blaine. Yet Anoka County was spurned by the team in 2006 for Minneapolis and Hennepin County, which have offered no money toward a proposed stadium on the site of the Metrodome.

"We really need some kind of convention center and some good hotels," said longtime county resident Loren Hentges, 83. "I don't think the Vikings deal did much for the county's image.

"We're not just all wetlands and sod farms up here anymore, you know."

Blaine is home to the National Sports Center and TPC golf course and the future home of Infinite Campus, a provider of data management systems for 900 school districts in 41 states. Fridley is home to global medical leader Medtronic, a Fortune 500 company that was ranked last year as the country's 72nd best employer by Fortune.

The advent of the Northstar commuter rail line next year and, if it can be funded and built, a proposed passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth will surely transform Anoka County into the most desirable place to live in Minnesota, Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart says repeatedly. Erhart also likes to tell businesses looking to relocate, "We're open for business."

Few major arteries

But 59 percent of the county's eligible workforce works outside the county, Skepper said. And for all that the county offers -- quality of life, proximity to Minneapolis and St. Paul, the city of Anoka's quaint downtown, low taxes, a head start to the North Shore -- residents and outsiders are just as apt to focus on what Anoka County does not have.

There is no major east-west Interstate. The one freeway that links Minneapolis to Anoka County has been under major construction since the I-35W bridge collapse. There are few major arteries north of Hwy. 10 and fewer jobs.

"How do we turn lemons into lemonade?" Johnson asked.

In addition to being home of Olympic silver-medal winning wrestler Brandon Paulson and its claim to have provided the first volunteers for the Union Army during the Civil War, the county boasts plenty of affordable housing, Johnson said. With rising gas prices and the open land to lure industry, Skepper said more residents are saying they want to work in the county where they live.

Gaining momentum

Bryan Schafer, Blaine's director of planning and community development, said he and other officials have spoken with property owners whose land was sought by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf two years ago for the $670 million stadium. They're still interested in selling their property, he said.

"I think there's a lot on the horizon," Schafer said, mentioning the proposed Blaine SportsTown project that could include many elements the defunct Northern Lights project suggested.

"We're positioned well. Momentum is building."

Noted County Commissioner Dick Lang, "We're not country hicks living up here."

Steve Novak, the county's lead negotiator for the Vikings stadium in Blaine, believed that bringing Minnesota's pro football team to Anoka County would have changed the epicenter of the Twin Cities.

Changing geography is one thing, history another. It was the airport's location south of Minneapolis that tilted the Twin Cities to the south, Johnson said. The airport and I-494 drove explosive development in Bloomington.

"If we had a freeway like 494 running east-west through Anoka County, it would change everything ... further connect us, take away the feeling that we're 'up there,'" said Palumbo.

It all depends on your vantage point, said County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah, who grew up farther north near Cambridge, in Isanti County. "We always thought the Twin Cities began around Columbia Heights and Fridley, in Anoka County," she said.

"Down there."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419