Civic leaders on the east end of the Twin Cities metro area increasingly worry that the latest wave of economic development and growth is sweeping in one direction: to the west.
Jobs growth in west metro counties is racing ahead of projections, while in the east it’s trailing behind. A series of desertions of flagship firms offering thousands of jobs between them is a particular concern in Ramsey and Washington counties.
“The anxiety out here not only exists but is well founded,” said Marc Huginin, a former Metropolitan Council member for Washington County. “We have really fallen behind. We don’t seem able to achieve a critical mass.”
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s vow last week to attract 3,000 jobs to the city in three years comes as others warn about an absence of large downtown employers that could help lure new residents to the east metro suburbs.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that thousands of commuters in growing cities like Woodbury are creeping, morning and evening, all the way across three counties in quest of jobs — many to suburbs on the far end of the metro. No corresponding odyssey runs the opposite way.
“If jobs start calcifying to the west,” lengthening commutes, said deputy state demographer Andi Egbert, “it becomes harder and harder to ‘sell’ the east as a lifestyle: Time is so much of the essence these days if you’re going to keep your life working.”
The metro area is bulging westward as the federal government, sniffing out changing commute patterns, adds far-flung southwest-metro counties Sibley and Le Sueur to the officially defined Twin Cities metropolitan area.
In the east, meanwhile, when elected officials and senior staff in Woodbury broke into groups during a retreat last year and contemplated what they would do if granted a genie’s wish, one department head stood up and said:
“Since we have magic wands, we want to turn the tide of development from the west metro to the east.” At which a voice called out: “Now that is a big magic wand!”
A new analysis by the State Demographic Center shows that Ramsey County is experiencing the greatest outflow of existing residents of any county in Minnesota. Its population is growing, but only because of a wave of international immigration.
If the east has long felt slighted and overlooked, one new ingredient that feels especially threatening is the emergence of a costly system of major transitways designed to attract station-area jobs and high-density living space.
The leaders of East Metro Strong point to major employers heading west in quest of transit access for workers, or clearing out and then announcing that from now on they will only plant big installations along busy public transit lines.
The roll call of departures from east metro cities has been unnerving for the region’s business and political leaders:
• State Farm built a 400,000-square-foot headquarters on perhaps the most visible spot in Woodbury, then departed, leaving a shell to sit vacant for nearly a decade before it was finally demolished last year.
• Hartford Insurance, its logo looming over the main freeway intersection in Woodbury, once employed 1,200 people there; but those jobs too have drifted away.
• In Oakdale, Imation, a 3M spinoff, employed 5,000 at its corporate headquarters in 2005. The company, and all those jobs, vanished over the following decade. More recently, education firm ECMC moved 500 jobs from Oakdale to downtown Minneapolis.
• Smiths Medical announced at the end of 2014 that it would move more than 400 jobs from Arden Hills to Plymouth.
• Cray, the computer firm, is expected by this fall to have taken 500 jobs from downtown St. Paul to the Mall of America’s new office building.
No wonder, then, that Ramsey County and Arden Hills coughed up tax subsidies when Land O’Lakes, one of east’s biggest remaining corporate headquarters, threatened to pull up stakes. “This is rare and will continue to be so,” Ramsey Commissioner Toni Carter said at the time.
Ramsey and Washington counties have both either launched or are talking to cities about launching new countywide government entities with broad power and the aim of promoting economic development, a role traditionally left to cities.
Those moves may be the closest indication of the simmering resentment that lies beneath the surface of mild public admonitions, such as East Metro Strong’s warning of a longed-for “future that may not happen.”
“Think about all the businesses, the jobs, the dollars, that are migrating from the east metro to Hennepin County,” an east metro official said privately. “Collectively we are going to have to start fighting.”
Thanks in part to a successful new Green Line light rail connecting the two downtowns, St. Paul is experiencing a residential boom. But civic leaders worry that St. Paul is quite literally taking population growth in place of jobs, with an increasing amount of downtown office space and industrial sites near transit being converted into residential use.
Last year close to 300,000 square feet of office space in downtown St. Paul turned into homes, with more to come, an industry group reported. A firm that owns 15 notable downtown buildings there is reported to be converting several to residential use.
“We need a ‘no net loss’ for industrial that is just as strict as the one for parks,” said Lorrie Louder, senior vice president at the St. Paul Port Authority. “We’ve lost a lot of industrial land.”
Ryan O’Connor, planning chief for Ramsey County, is convinced that some of the alarm is overdone, the result in part of deep wounds over past abandonments that “stay in the psyche” even though some are decades old. “This is not a dying area,” he said.
Jobs growth in Ramsey County is creeping gradually higher, he said. “Assuming trends continue that way, we are starting to see what we want to see happen.”
He agrees, though, that the westward tilt of the transit grid is a big deal. “If we don’t see the lines happen here that we hope to see, including downtown to the airport, and we do see a Southwest and a Bottineau and an Orange Line [all in the west], I do have long-term concern,” O’Connor said.
“Employers do not want to rely on single occupancy vehicles for their workforce. This is a looming threat.”