Randy Jennings excoriates the City Council for its economic development practices

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Randy Jennings has a guest column in yesterday’s Nfld News titled What is economic development? Yawn? Nosiree. It is a benign title for a hard-hitting piece.  (I assume the headline was crafted by the editorial staff at the paper, hence my use of the word ‘excoriates’ in the blog post title. It essentially means ‘kicks the ass of’ but you can look it up.)

It’s a well-written piece, so I encourage you to read the whole thing. But here are some excerpts:

With its takeover of the Economic Development Authority and the resignation of yet another member of the city’s professional staff, the city council has completed its dismantling of Northfield’s economic development, community development and city planning efforts…

Since then, the city council has new members with their own agendas and priorities. Community re-engineering ideas with clever names like “green steps,” “strong towns” and “complete streets” get attention. Job creation and tax base expansion do not…

Several current council members are actively opposed to commercial and industrial development. They spent more than a year angling to take control of the EDA without advancing a single idea about job creation or tax base expansion. They are instead funding specific organizations and activities that enhance their definitions of quality of life in Northfield. No impact on attracting jobs or expanding the tax base. Not economic development…

Perhaps the next election will serve as a referendum on what kind of a future Northfield would like to develop: more quality of life re-engineering, or more jobs and an expanded tax base…

I’m not well-informed on matters of economic development but I’m more supportive of the direction the current City Council has taken.  Two large Northfield employers, Monster Games and Perkins Specialized Transportation Contracting, were featured in the Northfield Community Video project for which Randy was hired to be the Project Coordinator by the EDA. If you watch the videos that feature their owners (here and here), you’ll see that they attribute their location of their businesses in Northfield in large part to the very things that Randy criticizes in his column: Northfield’s vibrant downtown and overall quality of life.

So let’s talk Northfield economic development: the good, the bad, the ugly.

42 comments to  (Including 9 Discussion Threads) Randy Jennings excoriates the City Council for its economic development practices

  • 1
    Griff Wigley says:

    Meanwhile on Tuesday night, according to the Nfld news, things are looking up between the Council and the EDA: Collaborative spirit pervades council meeting:

    Where 2011 was fraught with anxiety and acrimony, 2012 began on a different note for the Northfield City Council and Economic Development Authority…

    Tuesday’s session was downright congenial with council and board members agreeing to meet — at least in the short term — more frequently than required…

  • 2
    kiffi summa says:

    This is a very strange piece for a person who has been hired by the EDA/City for the last couple years to produce promotion pieces. That contract ended sometime in the last 6 months, Jody Gunderson announced, although I did see payments ($1200-1800) to Mr. Jennings in the disbursements after that announcement; maybe the city was just paying last invoices.

    But the whole positioning of this piece is so antithetical to what the Council has determined is the framework of economic development today, as opposed to the just “jobs and business expansion” of previous times.

    Since Northfield is not particularly interested in having ‘heavy’ industry here, creating the “climate” for what is now stated to be “economic gardening” is what attracts entrepreneurs like Monster Games and Perkins Transportation.

    One cannot help but wonder at the origin of this piece? Randy: is this your personal opinion or were you asked to write this piece? I don’t expect that question to be answered, but it reads like a disgruntled former EDA screed, IMO, which is basically advocating to get back to the Business Park philosophy.

    I must admit to being surprised at the very dismissive tone taken to the programs councilors have advocated (see second paragraph Griff has quoted), as there seems to be complete agreement on the Council that this is what can actually be accomplished to build a good environment for economic development, as well as benefit the city generally. Is the point to completely discredit the whole Council perspective and new direction to the EDA?

    Even the Mayor, a firm supporter of the 530 Ac. Business Park, wondered at last Tuesday’s joint meeting with the EDA if that would still be recommended in a revision of the Master Economic Development Plan… different economic times, different philosophies developing and catching hold with a Council not adverse to exploring ideas that have proven productive.

    Only one of the 4 vacant seats on the EDA has been filled (Fred Rogers, Carleton Financial officer, and a board member of the EDA’s NEC) and the Mayor said that although she has asked them, there are no Council volunteers for the 2nd Council EDA seat, but she will be bringing more appointments to the meeting on the 17th. I imagine since no other Councilors have so far asked for the job, the Mayor will again present herself for that second council seat on the EDA.

    A very strange opinion piece indeed, especially considering the whole EDA/ Council ‘picture’ for the last 14 months…

    • 2.1
      Randy Jennings says:

      Kiffi,
      This is entirely my personal opinion. I don’t know why you find it “strange,” since you’ve observed the dysfunction of past 14 months as closely as anyone. Maybe you just don’t think the primary responsibility for the dysfunction rests with the council.

      What makes you think Northfield is not interested in “heavy” (your word) industry? It’s clear the council isn’t interested in any industry, but when I talk to people, I hear a lot of interest in attracting jobs and expanding the tax base, whatever that takes. (Maybe not polluting industries, to be sure. Perhaps that’s what you mean by “heavy.”) Jobs and tax base are old-fashioned concerns, perhaps, but a real need unlikely to be addressed by anything the council has put forward. They would know this, if they sought and respected the advice of Northfield’s key employers and business leaders. But they keep their own counsel.

      • 2.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Randy: If you listened to the Council Meeting last Tuesday, I think that you would hear that some of the things you are advocating for, especially seeking input from and listening to business owners, were given as direction to the EDA. My observation of larger meetings between the ‘city’ and the Chamber is that few Chamber members will publicly air the concerns which they speak far more openly about in private conversations.

        I do disagree with your comment: “They keep their own counsel”. (Nice turn of phrase, by the way, i.e. counsel/council) … but a bit of a dichotomy …
        Because it seems that one of your complaints is how vocal they have been with their ideas, which you term “re-engineering”.

        I certainly do not think the primary responsibility for the dysfunction rests with the Council; I have been all too reiterative in the past with my criticism of the previous majority of the EDA. In my opinion, that is where the responsibility for dysfunction firmly and clearly lay… but enough about that old topic.
        If there was a problem with the year long Council process re: the EDA, it was just that, i.e., a year long, and re-written documents which have little more reason to be enforced (if the ‘players’ don’t want to) than the previous documents; after all, much of the EDA process is controlled by statute.

        But here’s a question Randy: would you have written the same opinion piece after hearing last Tuesday’s joint meeting?

      • 2.1.2
        Randy Jennings says:

        Kiffi,
        While I think it’s an advance that the council and the EDA held an amicable joint meeting on Tuesday night, the issues I have raised remain. So, yes, I’d still write the same piece.

        What you describe as the council’s “framework of economic development” is, in my view, simply a couple of city council members finding some jargon and trendy theories to justify funding the projects they want. If they could produce a plan for “economic gardening” that projects the job growth and tax impacts resulting from specific activities — as the business park master plan does — it would be worth a look. Then we could choose the most realistic strategy for growing our local economy.

        (You might still want to dismiss the biz park plan, but there’s no question it was prepared by people with substantially more real-world experience than the members of the council can muster, and was subject to several rounds of open review by the public and members of the council. That can’t be said of whatever you think represents the council’s “framework.”)

        As for keeping their own counsel, the members of the council certainly do speak often and loudly, but from the dais during council meetings or during work sessions when they can’t be questioned or challenged.

      • 2.1.3
        kiffi summa says:

        Thanks for the reply, Randy… same ol’, same ol’ argument between us!

        But in fairness, have you explored some of the websites connected to the idea of ‘economic gardening’ ?
        I’d be interested in what you find wrong about their POV…

        ( as to jargon, if I hear any council member say “strategic” one more time…)

      • 2.1.4
        Randy Jennings says:

        Kiffi,
        I’ll take a shot at outlining why I think “economic gardening” is insufficient. This is long, and for that I apologize.

        At it’s most basic, economic gardening is a grow-your-own approach. In theory, that’s great. I think we all want our local businesses to grow and prosper. But from the base we have, what are the prospects?

        Starting at the top of the employment chain, St. Olaf and Carleton won’t be adding significant new numbers; the hospital has potential for incremental growth, if it can expand its geographic service area to draw on a larger population; our senior centers will slowly grow, but those jobs don’t have the multiplier effects that fuel a growing economy; the school district won’t be growing. In the industrial sphere, Malt-O-Meal’s growth will be elsewhere for business reasons; Multek, All-Flex, Cardinal Glass, Aurora Pharma, Perkins, etc., and the other smaller to midsize tech businesses seem to be holding their own; if they grow and add staff, it will be largely in good jobs for people with technical skills. Yea!

        So what about our “creatives” and services? As a community, we’ve got probably more banks, lawyers (sorry, David L. et al) and architects than this community can fully support. Can they extend their reach through online services? Not so much. Arts? We’ve got the same sorts of struggling organizations that any community with our profile has. Not much room for new growth there. Individual artists? Yes, we have them, too, and they are an entrepreneurial bunch, but they don’t create jobs: they employ themselves. (And more power to them!)

        Any real growth will have to come from entrepreneurs with new ideas. Yes, there are some. Yes, we can help them grow. But many of our businesses, particularly the hospitality and retail businesses in our charming downtown, need more customers; they’ll do well if they can get more traffic, and for that we need….

        …significant new employers who are not already in this market. Maybe they are industrial (if we had space), maybe they are commercial (if we had space), or maybe they are in services. Adding a job here and a job there is fine. But attracting a company here and a company there adds more than just multiple jobs, it adds all of the local spending that a company generates: materials, supplies, printing, marketing, banking, legal, lunch. We need these multipliers, not more self-employed consultants (I plead guilty as charged).

        (I’ve never heard a council member talk about the Rice County (or was it the U of M Extension Service?) study of the multiplier effects of jobs in specific industries in our market. A manufacturing job has a 2x or 3x or more xxx greater impact than a service job. No surprise there, but that’s a clue to where we ought to be spending our money and effort attracting new businesses.)

        Even if we successfully grow employment through watering and fertilizing the incremental growth of our existing businesses, what’s the impact on the tax base?

        This is where I argue the economic gardening model fails us. The early growth in employment in any of our existing businesses will net essentially no change in the tax base. Why? Everyone has some slack space that they will stretch to the limit before investing more in facility expansion or new construction. Every empty office or storefront in downtown is already on the tax rolls. Without renovation, expansion or construction of new facilities, bringing low(er) taxed land and buildings into higher valuations, we receive no tax benefit. Given the way valuations have fallen, even with new investments the tax impact of some expansions or renovations may be minimal, anyway. So, we have a bad cycle in which without growth, we have to raise taxes on current payers just to tread water on the cost of operating government.

        So, as I said above, if the council members who think this is the best economic development framework want to put together a model that says if we invest x in a defined set of activities, we can predict y new jobs (and describe them) and z additional tax revenues, then it will be well worth a thorough community review. If there’s a real model that fits our resources and assets, then I’ll be the first cheerleader. But so far all we’ve seen from the council is vague claims to lay the groundwork for grant-making to prop up downtown organizations. It’s hard to take those claims seriously without any data or evidence to back them up. Googling “economic gardening” and reading about Leadville, Colorado or Chico, California does not make an actionable workplan for Northfield.

      • 2.1.5
        kiffi summa says:

        Thanks for the exhaustive analysis/reply, Randy… I sincerely mean that.

        Why didn’t you apply for the EDA?
        It sounds like you would be ready to have very specific discussions that do need to happen.

        More later…

    • 2.2
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi,

      I am very skeptical of the programs being proposed by the Council. For example, Betsey had a blog post about some study showing that a library is an “economic driver”! If we have reached that point, Northfield is better off disbanding the EDA rather than having it used as a puppet authority of the Council.

      • 2.2.1
        Steve Wilmot says:

        I just wanted to add a quick couple of words on the too many architects in town comment Randy offered above. Certainly this is true if they are seeking only to practice within Northfield.

        I will offer that SMSQ Architects was founded in Northfield in 1949 and has done work across the country since the 1960′s (perhaps earlier) with some current projects in Montana, Kansas, and California. Sure the Twin Cities work is easier to get to, and we are happy to work in Northfield when the “out of town experts” exclusion doesn’t apply, but it is actually easier to travel to Phoenix, AZ than Thief River Falls so why not work there?

        So, in summary, we don’t expand our architectural work online, but we certainly expand our market area beyond Northfield and Rice County and many others can too. As legal example, perhaps Mr. Fossum should be cited for developing a specialty (international criminal law) that looks beyond our small town.

      • 2.2.2
        Randy Jennings says:

        Steve,
        Good point. Like most non-retail Northfield businesses, yours generates the bulk of its revenue out of town. Your observation is important: what special expertise does Northfield attract and might export?

        Two follow-up questions: 1) Aside from a stronger economy and more building projects on which to bid, what local help would support/accelerate the growth of your firm to the point where you would add employees and eventually have to expand to a new facility?

        2) How can Nfld’s resources (human, creative, financial) be used to promote the special expertise of our local businesses? And how might that promotional support be quantified into an impact on jobs and taxes?

  • 3
    Randy Jennings says:

    Griff,
    You’ve cited a great example for discussion. The video assignment was to present Northfield in the best possible light. That’s not difficult to do: this is a great community. We have lots of nice features and amenities that are attractive. In selecting the subjects and shaping the stories, we simply didn’t speak to the less appealing aspects of trying to do business here, like relatively high taxes on commercial property, the limited availability of commercial and industrial land, or the restrictive land development code.

    I didn’t do the interview with Rich Garcia, so I can’t speak to the business reasons that led him to locate in Northfield, but having spoken to Neil Perkins on several occasions, I can tell you that while he appreciated how “cute” Northfield is, he moved his business here because there was a vacant industrial building in the Riverview Business Park and JOB-Z tax credits available to make the relocation economically viable. Without both of those, he would have enjoyed his stop in town and moved on. If he rode his motorcycle through town today, he would not find a building or site large enough to accommodate his firm.

    That’s the core issue. This council has a seemingly insatiable appetite for amenities, but has demonstrated virtually no interest in or understanding of the nuts and bolts of economic development. They can’t even find five acres of land for a public safety center, so how would a business find land to locate or expand in Northfield?

  • 4
    David Ludescher says:

    Kiffi,

    I applaud Randy for speaking the obvious -- the City Council has decided that it, not the Economic Development Authority, is both the expert and the authority on economic development. As he notes, community re-engineering projects like “complete streets” and “strong towns” get all of the attention. These philosophies aren’t economic development; they are excuses for implementation of personal agendas.

    Presently the City Council has so much control over economic development that discussion “community discussion” is pointless. So long as the Council believes in these vague economic philosophies they will continue to do things like spend $1.5 million for a pedestrian underpass in the name of economic development.

  • 5
    Angela Lauterbach says:

    Personally it makes sense to have some industrial type of company here that can employ about 150-200 people to make something. Not every kid raised here will go on to be an entrepreneur and not all of them really want to. There shouldn’t be implied shame in taking honest hard work because the economic gardeners don’t like industrial plants.

    Seriously, this place is growing. How will we avoid the encroaching bedroom community aspects of that growth? People commute for work. How can we keep them here?

    I don’t know if a business park is the answer, but I do realize that a good deal of money was spent in finding out if it could be. Giving up on something of that magnitude without considering how to make at least part of it beneficial seems wasteful.

  • 6

    If you watch the videos that feature their owners (here and here), you’ll see that they attribute their location of their businesses in Northfield in large part to the very things that Randy criticizes in his column: Northfield’s vibrant downtown and overall quality of life.

    Griff, I think you hit the nail on the head. I think all our councilors are interested in Northfield’s economic wellbeing, but they have different ways of going about it. On the one extreme, our larger neighbor to the north, Lakeville, has annexed everything in sight (the city limits are a jaw-dropping 37 square miles), and gives business whatever business wants. Our smaller neighbor to the south, Dundas, has also stooped low to enlarge its tax base (with some success for commercial/industrial, but pretty disastrous results for residential).

    Rather than being Dundas or Lakeville, most of our councilors are taking the approach of being a town, and making decisions that benefit the whole picture of the town — not just the tax base.

    I’d also point to this exchange between Randy and Betsey Buckheit on her blog, regarding one of the issues Randy talks about in his guest column: the Greenvale Township business park. Randy is perfectly honest in saying this is an opinion column and not an objective assessment, but it’s worth remembering his long-standing support for the Greenvale business park. He also seems to have a strong objection to this “re-engineering” he refers to that goes beyond economic development concern.

    I find it rather insulting, actually, to pretend that there Grown Up™ issues (economic development), separate from apparently-unimportant “quality of life” issues. A good town is obligated to be concerned about both, and concerned about their balance. I think Northfield has done a pretty good job in that regard.

    • 6.1
      Randy Jennings says:

      Sean,
      As I replied to Griff, quality of life is certainly one of Northfield’s appealing features and an easy one to promote, but we are (ironically, given some council members’ passion for sustainability) out of balance with our resources. Tax base really is the sustainability question, even if it isn’t as satisfying as quality of life.

      I had forgotten the exchange with Betsey, but on re-reading think it still holds, except that she quit after one exchange. She’s never presented any kind of data or model to define the “economic gardening” approach, so there’s no way to compare it to the business park master plan.

      For the record, I don’t consider myself a proponent of the business park as much as a proponent of some form of public action and investment that puts us back on a path toward growing employment and expanding the tax base. The current financial resources of our “town” simply won’t suffice very far into the future, and I don’t see the public getting excited about raising tax rates, do you?

  • 7
    kiffi summa says:

    Upon re-reading your comments in your newspaper guest opinion column, Randy, I think there is a significant difference in the three large projects (St. Paul Riverfront, U-More, and Elk Run by Rochester) you mention, and the 530 Ac. annexation to Northfield, proposed for a business park, and that is ownership of the land.

    Many proponents of the proposed NF BizPk find it convenient to exclude the fact that NF does not own any of that acreage; all still privately owned by three farming families.

    Do you see that as a problem, Randy, when you compare the projects , as you did?

    • 7.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi,

      When the Chamber became a “proponent” of the business park, all that we asked is that the City permit some land, somewhere in Northfield to be designated for large scale development so that businesses that wanted to expand in or come to Northfield would have that option. The City gave the school district that option on the south side, and gave itself (the hospital) that option on the north side.

      • 7.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Understood,David… But I am still interested in the comparison of the cited projects , backed by enormous amounts of money, and unilateral ownership, to the NF ( but not owned by the City) annexed 530 Ac. for a proposed BizPk.

      • 7.1.2
        Randy Jennings says:

        Kiffi,
        St. Paul’s riverfront development is not dependent on city ownership of the land. They own or control some of it, but in their presentation emphasized that over the next two or three decades the work will require public-private partnerships.

        I believe, but am not positive, that the Elk Run development involves many land owners; the UMore property is owned by the University, so it is a different animal.

        Land ownership is a minor problem that the marketplace will solve. At some point there’s a price that makes sense, and when there’s a reason to calculate it, both buyers and sellers will find it. That is the point at which the public role will also be defined.

  • 8
    Griff Wigley says:

    Randy and David L, your critical comments about some councilors re: “their own agendas and priorities” (Randy) and “These philosophies aren’t economic development; they are excuses for implementation of personal agendas” (David) seem unwarranted.

    And Randy, this seems insulting:

    You might still want to dismiss the biz park plan, but there’s no question it was prepared by people with substantially more real-world experience than the members of the council can muster.

    It’s fine to object to their policies/direction but to base your objections partly on them having personal agendas seems to question their intentions. What evidence do you have to support their intentions are any different than yours, ie, wanting what’s best for Northfield?

    As for their lack of real-world experience compared to the biz park consultants, I assume that they’re drawing their education from other experts and consultants with different points of view, and not cooking up theories out of thin air.

    • 8.1
      Randy Jennings says:

      Griff,
      Are you disputing the fact that the business park master plan was prepared by people with more real-world experience than the members of the city council?

      It’s not insulting anyone to note the fact that the majority of our council is comprised of people with little or no business experience, nor to note that only two have jobs. Those are relevant — but certainly not the only — credentials for any discussion of economic policy.

      The council members are, as Councilor Buckheit has stated on multiple occasions, very smart, very well-educated people. I have no doubt that they sincerely think they are acting in the best interest of Northfield. But they have never presented their individual or collective (if there is one) vision of Northfield’s economic future in a public forum in which they can be challenged and questioned. In pursuing their policies and programs, they are most certainly pursuing personal agendas. I have no doubt that Councilor Ganey will insure that they do so within their powers and authority. But that’s not necessarily a reflection of the interests of the people they nominally represent. They didn’t openly run for office on platforms based on experimenting with a new economic paradigm. They mostly ran as being more open, more responsive, and more effective than the last council, and they have largely failed to deliver on all three counts.

      As critical as I am willing to be, I am as keenly interested in having someone — anyone — put forth an alternative model with the rigor and detail of the business park plan. Some new idea may very well be the best and brightest opportunity for Northfield to grow in a healthy and sustainable way. But we won’t know that without seeing a model and kicking the tires. And we certainly shouldn’t roll over to the council’s interests just because they say so.

    • 8.2
      Griff Wigley says:

      Randy, I don’t see how Councilors not having jobs or business experience is relevant to this issue. If they’re partial to the economic development policies of Richard Florida and Chuck Marohn, they have lots of company among smart people who do have jobs and business experience.

      So why not just characterize this as divergent visions of economic development, well-supported by experts and consultants on both sides?

      • 8.2.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Griff and Randy… I don’t think people vote for councilors because of business experience, and as a matter of fact… if business experience was the criteria for being appointed to the EDA, why did Mayor Rossing appoint Councilor Pownell, who does not have business experience?

        My impression is that Councilor Pownell asked for the EDA assignment and was granted it by the Mayor.

        IMO, people vote for Councilors that the voter thinks will most closely represent the voters personal convictions.

        So, I would agree with Griff that divergent views seem to provide the diversity that is always expressed as a sought after goal, one that brings the widest discussion.

        But often what I see , in the actual practice, is that unanimity is sought, not diversity…

  • 9
    Griff Wigley says:

    In yesterday’s Nfld News, repurposed from the Fbo Daily News: Faribault firm says it’s leaving Rice County

    A manufacturing business that has been in Faribault for more than 15 years has plans to eventually move to Shakopee, where it will build a $15 million, 175,000-square-foot plant…

    Community Development Director Peter Waldock said the city gave a comprehensive presentation to Trystar, complete with several site options and a package of economic incentives including tax credits, Tax Increment Financing, low-interest loans and JOBZ qualification. Every site was explored and every incentive investigated…

    In looking for land for a new manufacturing facility, Dahl said they looked in Faribault, Northfield, Lakeville and Shakopee, and didn’t look any farther away than that.

  • 10
    Griff Wigley says:

    Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, is investing in downtown Detroit in part because:

    People in their 20s and 30s, the best and brightest coming out of our universities, the vast majority of them want to be in a cool urban core in a hip city. Period. So, if we’re going to retain and maintain talent in our companies and have innovative creative people, we’ve got to make sure that we’re in the right locations that are going to generate the interest of those people. All of our businesses are Internet-related, technology-related, entertainment-related businesses. So thinking we’re going to do that in a suburban setting where people have to walk a couple hundred yards across asphalt in the middle of winter, it’s probably not going cut it for the kind of folks that we’re trying to attract. Kids don’t leave suburban Detroit to go to suburban Chicago or suburban New York or suburban L.A. They’re going to the downtowns. Most of the activity and the kinds of areas and the companies that are attractive to people who are the best and brightest in our view want to be in the urban core.

    Does any of his thinking apply to Northfield? It would seem so for companies like Monster Games and ID Insight.

    • 10.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Griff: I assume you quoted this source to give some credence to the idea of “economic gardening” which has been maligned here as just a “personal agenda” or “community re-engineering”.

      I think the economy has to be looked at with a new set of priorities if the ‘agenda’ is to be successful, and ‘community re-engineering’ was certainly the priority in the development of the suburbs in the 1950s…
      Shouldn’t we call The G.I. Bill social, or ‘community re-engineering’; its goal being to boost a lot of returning soldiers into further education and family homes?

      So I consider ‘community re-engineering’ a good thing, a smart thing … a necessary reaction to a changing economy.

    • 10.2
      Randy Jennings says:

      Griff,
      You aren’t seriously comparing “cool urban core in a hip city” to Northfield, are you? If you are, what do you think of Monster Games relocating to the suburbs?

    • 10.3
      Griff Wigley says:

      Randy, no need to be dismissive. I asked, “Does any of his thinking apply to Northfield?”

      In re-reading the 2006 Comprehensive Economic Development Plan, this seems pretty close to what Dan Gilbert is doing in Detroit:

      Re-capture alumni. The colleges provide a steady stream of talent to the community. Collectively, they enroll nearly 5,000 students who rank among the nation’s best and brightest. Yet it is clear that the community has not been entirely successful in realizing the benefits of their presence. Given their institutional missions as four-year liberal arts campuses, Northfield has not realized additional public and private investment. The research and development or startup enterprises often associated with university-related economic development are not readily apparent.

      In addition, a lack of graduate programs and the lure of metropolitan areas, including the Twin Cities, means that students typically leave the area upon graduation. The growing relationship of higher education to economic development and the opportunity presented by the graduates of St. Olaf and Carleton make the attraction and retention of alumni the most promising strategy for developing Northfield’s talent base.

      The fact that Northfield can be considered a potential residence for a large pool of talented individuals should work to the community’s advantage throughout the Midwest. The EDA should work with the colleges and others to reconnect with alumni — those that have completed their graduate studies and may be looking to start a family or a business venture. This would include compiling alumni databases, conducting e-mail surveys, and developing promotional materials to keep the “Northfield brand” fresh in the minds of former students.

    • 10.4
      Griff Wigley says:

      Randy, I was thrilled to learn that Monster Games was staying in Northfield and buying a gorgeous, unoccupied building. Sure, it would be better if they’d been able to find/buy a suitable downtown location but this is a great outcome, IMHO.

    • 10.5
      Griff Wigley says:

      Randy, I’m assuming that one of those organizations you’re referring to in this paragraph from your newspaper commentary is the NDDC. You wrote of the Council:

      They are instead funding specific organizations and activities that enhance their definitions of quality of life in Northfield. No impact on attracting jobs or expanding the tax base. Not economic development.

      In the excerpt I cited above from the 2006 Comprehensive Economic Development Plan produced by TIP Strategies of Austin, TX which listed Recapture Alumni as its #3 economic development strategy.

      See Ross Currier’s blog post from Oct. 3, 2011. The NDDC is attempting to do exactly what these economic development consultants recommended. So I don’t understand why you don’t support the Council for continuing to fund the NDDC or why you don’t see this as an economic development strategy but just dismiss it as quality of life enhancements.

  • 11

    I don’t want to weigh in on the local politics here (I’m ignorant on them) and I don’t know the individual that wrote the article, but having read the piece in which he alluded to our organization, Strong Towns, I can say the following:

    The approach of simply growing the tax base and adding jobs is a very 1950′s mentality. It is a relatively simple exercise to grow the tax base. A more sophisticated approach gets at the net return on investment. You can spend a million dollars bringing in a new business that will add to the tax base. If the goal is not just tax base growth but the net return, then that business must generate more than $1,000,000 in revenue to the city over the life cycle of that investment. If not, you’re going backwards.

    The standard approach of the past two generations has been to focus on simply growing the tax base. You’ve seen a lot of crazy things take place as a result, like a mile of sewer/water pipe run out to hook up one or two businesses that built on some cheap land at the edge of town. In the long term, when all that infrastructure needs to be maintained, we’re simply going backwards financially. We’re now into the long term on those initial post WW II investments and we can see pretty clearly how that narrow model of growth is breaking down.

    The author also focused on jobs. A quick word on that: Jobs are a byproduct of a productive economic system, not a proxy for one. That holds true on the federal and state levels as well as on the local level. Creating jobs is a simplistic goal. Creating an environment that produces and sustains jobs is much more sophisticated.

    Northfield has the capacity — intellectually and financially — to be leaders in job creation in this new economy. I would submit that libraries and festivals are going to be more significant components of a successful approach than tax subsidies and large gambles with new infrastructure.

    The author’s intentions may be in the right place, but the methods and means need some serious modernizing.

    • 11.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      Charles (or do you prefer to be called ‘Chuck’ in a conversation?), thanks much for chiming in here as Executive Director of Strong Towns.

      Putting on my moderator hat, I don’t know if you can continue to participate, but if so, just a heads up on a rule we have here that I’m quite sure you don’t know about: address a person directly using their first name when disagreeing with them, even if you don’t know/haven’t met the person. It really helps to keep online conversations civil.

      So I invite others who want to respond to you to address you directly by name and should you consider responding back, that you do likewise.

      Thanks!

  • 12
    Tracy Davis says:

    To my mind, there are a couple of different issues here, and sifting them out would be helpful in framing the discussion.

    1. The jobs-and-tax-base definition of “economic development” is the conventional understanding of the term, and is the one held by most public employees in the U.S. The definition has not changed in 40+ years, but major trends in business, industry, and finance certainly have. Personally, I think the definition is outdated and inadequate, and since there’s now sufficient history upon which to base analysis of this approach, we should be able to determine how it’s working, and draw some conclusions.

    2. The founding documents of Northfield’s EDA state clearly that its mission focuses on increasing both jobs and tax base, so taking the old-skool approach means the EDA is trying to do its job. Until the Council/EDA/my dog work together to come up with a new definition for economic development in Northfield and a new mission framework for same, disagreements and dissatisfaction will continue.

    [Break for group hug.

    Don't shoot the EDA for trying to do its job the conventionally recognized way!

    Don't shoot the City Council et al for saying that the established approach should be rexamined!

    Kumbayah.]

    3. The citizens of Northfield need to determine how they wish to define economic development, and what the community is willing to do, sacrifice, or spend in order to accomplish same.

    Each community has a different mix of strengths/assets, deficiencies, community values, fiscal resources, etc. that it brings to any issue.

    You don’t need to be an expert to make policies. It’s completely appropriate for the City Council to re-evaluate existing policies when relevant new information is available for consideration, or when something doesn’t appear to be working as intended.

    The discussion would generate more light, less heat if it could be focused on how Northfield wants to define its economic development, and what (if any) role the City government has in it, rather than on “Council generalists vs. EDA specialists” or on personalities.

    (And to all you petty grammarians out there, please excuse the dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and split infinitives. I’m speaking in the vernacular, not writing a thesis. )

    • 12.1
      Randy Jennings says:

      Tracy,
      If the result of the sturm und drang of this conversation is that we get a true community conversation about our economic future, then it will be worth the time and effort. But that’s not the direction the council has taken us. They’ve preempted that conversation by moving ahead on their own, without the community involvement you highlight.

      I hope they do put forth a vision. And if, after rigorous debate, the ideas they bring to the table look promising, I hope we’ll all grab oars and row. But that hasn’t happened yet.

    • 12.2
      David Ludescher says:

      Tracy,

      It doesn’t matter how much light this discussion generates -- unless the City Council is reading Randy and carefully considering his analysis.

      In practice, the Council has 4 different possible roles: first, as representatives of the people, second, as the body responsible for the economic health of the City’s revenues and expenses, third, as the managing body of the Economic Authority, and fourth, as individuals with personal preferences for development.

      The Council has clearly taken control of the EDA. I’m not sure in what role they have done so, nor an I privy to their agenda. The best explanation I have heard so far is the one proposed by Randy -- that they are angling to get control of the EDA so that they can implement their own development ideas with clever names, like green streets and strong towns.

    • 12.3
      Griff Wigley says:

      Randy/Tracy,

      The City has a Comprehensive Economic Development Plan that was prepared by TIP Strategies in 2006. The EDA created a 2010 Work Plan that I thought was based on it. Both of these documents are available here.

      It would seem that the ‘new’ EDA and Council should create a 2012 Work Plan based on the 2006 Comprehensive Economic Development Plan. Or is that plan too outdated to be helpful at this point?

  • 13
    Griff Wigley says:

    Randy wrote in comment 2.1.4:

    Given the way valuations have fallen, even with new investments the tax impact of some expansions or renovations may be minimal, anyway. So, we have a bad cycle in which without growth, we have to raise taxes on current payers just to tread water on the cost of operating government.

    I’m wondering if Northfield really is in dire straits economically. We grew by 15% in the last 10 years, so it seems that more people want to live here.

    The cost of local government doesn’t seem way out of whack for the services that we want/need. Otherwise, why would people want move here in significant numbers if the local taxes were exorbitant and the local government services lousy? It may be far from ideal but is it way worse than other nearby towns?

    In other words, are we suffering so much economically that we need to make some big gambles (eg, investing in infrastructure to the biz parks) vs. a grow-slow/economic gardening approach? If so, what’s the tangible evidence?

    • 13.1
      kiffi summa says:

      GRiff: Consider this quote from the NFNews article re: Trystar relocation …

      “Faribault proposed a number of locations, but the problem is they were owned by local farmers and land was more expensive than in the Minneapolis area. We would have had to spend more to improve the land than to buy it”.

      That is a quote from Rick Dahl, the President of Trystar, Inc.

      I would submit the opinion that the tax implications of providing infrastructure to the proposed BizPK, is overwhelmingly out of scale to NF’s tax capacity reality.

    • 13.2
      David Ludescher says:

      Griff,

      The business park plan has never involved big gambles on development, nor should it. Development costs are, and should be, borne by the developers and their development. The exceptions appear to be projects that are the darlings of the bobo class -- like the the Crossings, which received special development treatment.

      When I was on the Chamber, all that we asked is that the Council back off on all of the restrictions to development so that business and industry can develop naturally. Business and industry have almost no voice in what is happening. When the Comprehensive Plan was drafted, the Chamber (made up of 250 members and the majority of business activity) got just as much time as the Historical Preservation Committee (a citizen group appointed by the Mayor). And to add insult to injury, the Planning Commission refused to meet with the Chamber to address our concerns.

      The fact that people are still moving to Northfield is probably more related to our bobo culture than to Northfield’s economic vitality. True, Northfielders are willing to pay high individual taxes to get the services they want. But people sometimes forget that very few residences are self-supporting. Businesses not only bear a higher tax rate but they usually get less services for the same dollar.

      This Council has already indicated a willingness to spend large amounts of money ($millions) on development projects -- the Safety Center and the library. The least that they could do is take seriously the idea that private development bringing in tax dollars to pay for these services is a goal worth examining.

  • 14
    Griff Wigley says:

    Um, what’s really going on with this?

    From Jane McWilliams’ LWV report on Tuesday’s Council meeting:

    Board and Commission Appointments: A list of candidates for still to be filled positions on several boards and commissions had been on the consent agenda, but Councilor Patrick Ganey asked that it be moved to the regular agenda so that it might be discussed. (Consent agenda items are voted on as a block, with no discussion.)

    At issue for Councilor Ganey were three appointments to the Economic Development Authority: two citizens who had previously sought appointment to the vacant council seat, Joe Gasior and Charles Hayes, and Councilor Suzie Nakasian. Councilor Nakasian moved that the council approve Mr. Gasior.

    Before the council could vote, Mayor Mary Rossing withdrew the entire slate of EDA candidates, saying it should be approved in its entirety. She said it was not appropriate to have a discussion about individual candidates in a public forum. She had sought to propose a slate with a wide variety of points of view and backgrounds and now she would have to rethink it. She will bring another slate. All but the EDA appointments were approved unanimously.

    • 14.1
      kiffi summa says:

      The LWV observer reports are meant to be a summary of actions taken, not a ‘blow by blow’ transcript.
      This is the reason that anyone deeply interested should watch the meeting for themself, if they want a full understanding of all the details.

      It was difficult to watch the council meeting on KYMN, as I did, because the video feed was all messed up (frozen on a static image) and the audio is sometimes not clearly distinguishable, but here’s another more detailed summary:

      . Councilor Ganey removes appointments item from the consent agenda , to the regular agenda for discussion.
      . He then moves to approve all but the EDA appointments.
      . Councilor Pownell asks why not the EDA?
      . Councilor Ganey reiterates that he is in support of the ( 5 ? ) non-EDA appointments.
      . vote is taken on those; vote is all aye.
      . Mayor asks if there is a motion to appoint to EDA.
      . Councilor Nakasian moves to appoint Joe Gasior to the EDA.
      . after a hesitation, the Mayor states that the group of three she proposed is a ‘slate’, and she would withdraw it, not wishing to break it up.

      *see Jane’s third paragraph above for further detail.

      … and thanks to the LWV observers (Council, School Board, and Hospital Board) for continuing to provide this community service.

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