Despite facing the prospect of losing nearly 700 corporate jobs over the span of nine months, officials in Woodbury and Oakdale strongly believe their cities will rebound.

But some leaders wonder whether a lack of transit options might hamper potential growth.

Woodbury lost 190 jobs last month as the Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. moved its mutual fund operation from the city. And Education Credit Management Corp., now known as ECMC Group, plans to move its corporate headquarters and 500 employees from Imation Corp.’s Oakdale campus to downtown Minneapolis by February 2016, according to CEO Dave Hawn.

The departures come as the former headquarters building for another major employer that left town a decade ago — State Farm — still sits empty at Radio Drive and Interstate 94 in Woodbury, while construction of the huge CityPlace office, retail and restaurant development nearby roars ahead.

Local officials believe an improving economy will help attract employers and jobs. What’s more, leasing agents say the Hartford building and the Imation property feature technology and other amenities that already are drawing interest from potential tenants.

But Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik worries that east-metro transit options need to be improved to attract the kind of companies that would be eager to hire millennials, who often prefer public transportation.

She pointed to a recent announcement that State Farm will develop major offices only near transit lines. Washington County, meanwhile, has no all-day transit service and much of the county’s workforce commutes to jobs outside the county, she said.

Hawn said that tapping a larger labor market was the primary focus of ECMC Group’s move to Minneapolis. But the company’s interest in hiring millennials, who “like to live, work and play in the same general area,” may have helped drive its decision to move to a spot where mass transit options are abundant, said John McCarthy, executive director of brokerage services at Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq.

Rebuilding momentum

While the job losses are disappointing, Scott Carlson, chairman of the Woodbury Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city is seeing “a lot of positive momentum.” Part of that stems from the development of the CityPlace project, and the new Bielenberg Gardens shopping center.

The city’s Chamber of Commerce is growing, too, and is expected to surpass 500 members soon.

“Anything that may be vacated I’m sure will be filled soon,” Carlson said.

Hartford’s departure wasn’t a total surprise. The company has “been pulling back since the Great Recession,” said Dwight Picha, Woodbury’s community development director.

In recent years, Hartford occupied only the top floor of the building it once owned at Interstates 94 and 494. Assurance and 3M each take up two floors.

Fred Hedberg, a principal at Paramount Real Estate Corp. in Bloomington, said the company is marketing the building, which is part of a development that could accommodate construction of up to 500,000 square feet of additional office space.

“We’ve had interested parties looking at it,” Hedberg said.

While Hartford had been scaling back, ECMC Group’s departure surprised Bob Streetar, Oakdale’s community development director, who said the company told him it wanted to construct a new building in Oakdale.

Taken from a broader perspective, however, Streetar said he doesn’t see ECMC’s move as a setback.

“We’re, in effect, one city,” he said of the metro area. “People live, shop, they entertain themselves and they work in different places. We have a strong job base here and it’s getting stronger. From a regional point of view, I don’t think it’s a loss at all.”

Meanwhile, McCarthy, of Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq, representing the Imation campus, said that property has drawn interest from medical groups because of its lab space. University of Minnesota officials also have looked at leasing offices for developing companies on the Imation campus. Imation, which has decided it needs less space, is considering selling the property but remaining there.

CityPlace progress

At CityPlace, several groups have expressed interest in the State Farm building, said Juan DeAngulo, managing principal of Florida-based Elion Partners, which is developing the 100-acre project with Minnesota’s Kraus-Anderson Cos.

“A 400,000-square foot decision doesn’t happen overnight,” DeAngulo said. “We’re not going to just be in a hurry to backfill a building that’s not going to complement the rest of the site.”

CityPlace developers have talked with a national group that wants to build a 100,000-square-foot medical office complex on land it would buy near the site of a hotel that is planned as part of the development.

“That would bring some significant professional jobs back to the city,” DeAngulo said.

He added that he expects the first CityPlace retail shops to open this fall. Among the companies that have signed leases are Whole Foods, Verizon Wireless, Caribou Coffee, Wedding Day Diamonds and Cafe Zupas.

 

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. HIs e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com