Chris Eng, Washington County’s first-ever economic development director, is part adviser, part visionary, part demographer and very much a salesman for the county’s best talking points.
Eng, 50 and a Chisago County native, most recently worked for the city of Duluth as director of business and economic development. Before that he was executive director and economic development director at the Chisago County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
He began his $101,629-a-year job in June, working for the Washington County Community Development Agency in Woodbury. The agency, which had been the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, recently was renamed to put more emphasis on the economic development component.
The big news story in Washington County, Eng said last week, is that despite some large companies leaving the county, the overall labor force has grown steadily since 2000. In 2015, the county had more than 137,000 workers.
U.S. Census figures show the only blip in that growth was a brief decline at the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. The census figures show another promising statistic: The county’s labor force grew nearly twice as fast as the statewide average over the same period.
Q: How do Washington and Chisago counties differ?
A: Both have seen economic growth. When the recession hit they saw a lot slow down. I think it was related to the price of gas. When it hit $4 a gallon ... people stopped driving from Chisago County to St. Paul. Washington County did a lot better in those years because it was that much closer to the job growth centers. Both counties have significant amounts of land that will hopefully be built on for economic development purposes, for new businesses including manufacturing companies, data centers, medical device companies. We’re out right now recruiting, very similar to what we did in Chisago County, to bring those types of opportunities to Washington County, to try to get the attention of the development and real estate communities.
Q: What types of companies and businesses? You’re not necessarily trying to attract the mom and pop grocery store?
A: It’s different in each community. For example, Hugo has city-owned land downtown on Hwy. 61 where they would love to have those mom-and-pop-type retail, restaurants, small businesses. In other areas, including Cottage Grove and Woodbury, you see other larger corporate developments happening right now. We have 17,800 businesses that have no employees. So these are nonemployer businesses, small businesses, that is our economic base. There’s a tremendous opportunity to grow those businesses. There are only nine businesses in the county that have over 500 employees. Eighty-six percent of our existing businesses have less than 20 employees.
Q: To what extent should and can government get involved in the private sector?
A: The way I look at it, and I think the way the County Board looks at it, we know the jobs are created in the private sector. Our role would be to help them. We’ve got to make sure the building is going to be zoned appropriately, that all the permits are in place, that they get the council’s approval, planning commission approval in some cases. Our hope would be that we could work with the businesses as a project manager. We’re not advertising, listing or selling property.
Q: You’ve used the term “Telling Washington County’s story.” What is that story, right now, to you?
A: We have amazing opportunities and amenities that we just haven’t done a very good job talking about. In terms of attracting and retaining talent for the jobs that are here today and the jobs that are coming in the future, we’ve got to be telling that story because there is an international competition for these jobs. What better way for us to fill those jobs than to talk about what’s going on here in the county? We’ve got amazing schools, not only at the K-12 level, but we have Century College which can help with training programs if a company needs customized training. The west metro has Lake Minnetonka but we have the St. Croix River. So it’s telling that story that you don’t have to be in the west metro to be successful. We’ve got a lot of opportunities on the east side.
Q: What about taxes in Washington County?
A: We’ll continue to grow our commercial and industrial market values. Our constituents are hearing that the taxes are something we’ve got to keep a close eye on, and rightfully so. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but if we can bring in commercial businesses or a market for industrial development, that will keep our residential taxes low.