Questions and answers at business park meeting

Brian O’Connell, Northfield Community Development Director, Frank Dunbar of Dunbar Developing Corp., Jeff Shopek of Loucks and Associates and Rick Estenson of the Northfield Economic Development Authority answered questions for about 20 minutes in front of an audience of about 36 on Thursday night in Saint Olaf’s Buntrock Commons Viking Theater. This video captures the first few minutes of the question and answer session, which took place after about an hour-long presentation regarding a proposed business park off State Highway 19.


Business Park Meeting at Viking Theater on Thursday from Bonnie Obremski on Vimeo.

A development planner and a civil engineer from Minneapolis showed perhaps three dozen audience members on Thursday night an equation for a $7 million project to build an industrial park off State Highway 19.

The steps citizens should expect to take in the next two or more years before reaching their development goal were on one side of the equation, planner Frank Dunbar and engineer Jeff Shopek explained.

On the other side, representing that goal was a clip-art image of a shovel. The shovel indicated the transformation of undeveloped farmland into grid-connected property primed for developers to dig foundations. The city is negotiating an annexation of some 530 acres of farmland from the adjacent Greenvale Township. The annexation was one of the steps. Other steps included acquiring necessary permits and plans, laying infrastructure and attracting an “end user.”

Shopek revealed the $7 million figure when he displayed a costs sheet during the PowerPoint presentation — a sheet he admitted was difficult for the audience to see. Shopek said he could display a spreadsheet budget later on upon request, but no one asked so he did not do so.

The estimated total cost included hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees associated with planning and engineering. According to Shopek and Dunbar, such an investment is absolutely necessary and worthwhile to attract any industrial developer to the proposed business park.

Only one person in the audience, Victor Summa of the Northfield Economic Development Authority (EDA), asked a question that specifically referenced the $7 million dollar shovel. Summa said, based on past EDA meetings, he had been expecting Dunbar and Shopek’s presentation to show more options about how to proceed following the proposed farmland annexation. The EDA chose Dunbar and Shopek to assemble the presentation about two months ago.

“I would like to have you respond to the option-agreement process that I thought we were going down,” Summa said. “I didn’t hear you mention one thing except you showed us a picture over there,” he continued, pointing to the spade.

Summa addressed his question to Dunbar, but Brian O’Connell, Northfield Community Development director, responded.

“Remember Victor, as a board, we discussed the enormity of securing an option on some or all of the pieces of property,” O’Connell replied. “And, the board itself quite clearly said, ‘Maybe we ought to take a little bit more cautious and step-by-step approach, as opposed to charging ahead and securing an option on a property until we really understood what we were getting ourselves into.’”

Even with Dunbar and Shopek’s preliminary studies, the city officials leading the meeting emphasized the plethora of unknowns.

“As you can tell, there are a lot of answers we ourselves still need to figure out,” O’Connell said at the beginning of the question and answer period.

Richard Estenson, spokesman for the Economic Development Authority, told the audience he welcomed ideas about what the proposed business park should be like. One resident said he would like to see environmentally friendly businesses and buildings. Dunbar responded that being “green” is now practically a standard in most industries, but the level to which a business is conscious of the health of the environment usually varies.

Following the presentation, the audience sipped soft drinks and munched cookies from Quality Bakery while discussing the meeting. Many seemed to appreciate the information session as an appropriate way to tell the public about the project. A member of the city’s development department filmed the meeting, but a digital copy of the information presented at the session still appears to be unavailable on the Web. A request for the information sent on Friday afternoon to O’Connell’s office and Shopek’s office had not been answered as of Saturday. O’Connell did not mention the meeting in his submission to this week’s city administrator’s memo released on Friday.

Update 10/2

I apologize for the misspelling of Richard Estenson’s name when I first posted this article.

18 thoughts on “Questions and answers at business park meeting”

  1. Thank you Bonnie, great reporting.
    Having watched the video, I see some troubling issues already beginning, or perhaps just coming to the surface. Leaving the $ issue aside for the moment, if the mantra is now “shovel ready consensus”, how is it that an EDA member had a different view of the consultant job as compared to what was presented at the meeting? Where their other EDA members present? Did they have different ideas or expectations?

    The troubling issues relate to the consensus building that I heard from the consultant. Several times I heard him say that consensus was very important. If EDA member/s have different consultant expectations, then how can community consensus be reach? Very difficult I say. The “shovel ready consensus” mantra becomes just that, a mantra.

  2. Always value Victor; foremost for asking the unaskables (and there are many). Peter, you too stay up with this issue because of your experience and lack of fear – for courage is the finest quality, especially these days.

    From an ordinary citizens POV, and I for one on this issue am such, we have a win – we have annexed , that is brought into our control – a big chunk of land to the northwest.

    However. Talk is happening amongst those in the know that maybe – just maybe – this might be a poisoned chalice because of the different agendas and POV (the community, the Comp Plan, the landowners, the developers, the staff, the Council) and if indeed if this is the case then we all have to be on our toes and diligent ‘cos our elected representatives on this difficult and complex issue have decided to trust staff who, given their vast amount of knowledge and experience on the challenging and complex issues are of the opinion that….hereafter it is mysterious to me.

    Anyway, I think this and I am sure that many others do too….Northfield has successfully brought into its control plentiful property for industrial and commercial, but not at all retail or housing, development in its NW corner.

    Is this true? Or is it true – most sadly, predictably and repetitively – that the ordinary non-involved citizen is about to be stuffed? And if so, most importantly, can our elected representatives ameliorate or to some degree explain away this ‘being stuffed’ feeling so that we can blithely, unconcernedly continue in our daily grind.

  3. Good reporting, Bonnie. I went to Thursday’s meeting fearing that we would be told that making the NW annexation area shovel ready was a done deal and I would go away feeling that I’d “been stuffed” to use Norman’s rather apt phrase.

    I don’t feel stuffed yet. I was encouraged by Mr Dunbar’s presentation which indicated Northfield had a great deal of homework to do before investing in infrastructure and other improvements to the land to make it shovel ready.

    I have these reservations:

      Community consensus: Mr Dunbar indicated a project this big required community buy-in, but the groups he talked about were a very small slice of the community: the EDA, the landowners, township and city council…all needed, but still a tiny minority.
      Decisive decision-making and follow through: Many projects get discussed and planned, then reconsidered, reconfigured, replanned…the kind of process outlined by Mr. Dunbar would take strong leadership and action by the EDA and Council to make it work.
      Race to the bottom: The presumption underlying the presentation is that government bears the burden of making a site shovel ready, marketing it, and finally attracting “end users.” This may be an accurate description of the market today, but it should make taxpayers and elected officials stop and think. Other cities are trying to attract end users, too. Each city works to create their shovel ready site with huge investments of public dollars. End users have a great deal of power to play cities against each other for additional tax breaks and other incentives in order to commit to locating in one city rather than another. The cities, having invested millions, don’t want to see their shovel ready site go undug and risk of losing the end user thus creating a huge incentive for not so smart deals.
  4. Norman ~ thanks for the kind words. Even though courage is an admirable trait for any person, I have yet to test my resolve in these circumstances. The odds against are surely stacking.

    If the annexation was just one step of many in attracting an “end user,” can City staff explain to the Council and ordinary folk the steps that need to be followed? Already one of the requirements for annexation; a general development plan or concept plan was removed. What other “steps” are being skipped for the sake of being so called business friendly?

    Bonnie also noted City staff reply to the question from Victor Summa regarding the use of the consultant; that a little bit more caution is needed, as opposed to charging ahead with the plethora of unknowns. What are the issues or general topics, from City staff point of view, that need to be figured out? Are these the same or part of the concerns of ordinary folk who may be impacted?

  5. I know there is talk of a green industrial campus look and feel which sounds great. I wonder how long is really required to make the property “shovel ready?” I would think being “shovel ready” is like sinking all the bucks into inventory and then the developers have the city over a barrel as they need to justify those dollars spent. This could lead to the green industrial vision get jettisoned for the first plant willing to build. Why not draw up the vision and then promote and sell to corporations before sinking too much into infrastructure while the city has more flexibility and bargaining power ? Which goes back to how much time does getting to “shovel ready” REALLY take once you have a customer ?

  6. I am surprised by the fear and concern about all the unknowns and sense that there are people out there trying the take advantage of the city.
    Green business parks are as common as playgrounds these days, and many, many cities and developers have done them with massive amounts of documentation. The costs of doing utilities and road construction are pretty standard, so putting together real numbers and realistic expectations is just not that hard. A single person could put together realistic research in a couple of days. A few follow-up phone calls to the people involved would nail it all down.
    Wouldn’t it make more sense to get answers than keep speculating about all the horrible things that could happen?

  7. Duke Realty, Ryan Companies, United Properties, Welsh Companies all have websites that include their portfolios of projects, which include business parks of all kinds.
    Woodbury has some of the most extensive experience in business parks of all kinds and sizes. Lakeville, Apple Valley, Burnsville, Chaska, Otsego, Columbus — just Google the term ‘business parks mn’ and you’ll see a huge list of them.
    Again, Northfield is far enough from a major traffic corridor that it will be far less competitive than Lakeville and some other places, so it might be better to look at other small towns ‘off the beaten path.’
    It also would make sense to look locally and see how Jasnoch created a beautiful and successful business park at Heritage Drive, just off Hwy 3. What a great collections of diverse businesses, great building designs and nice landscaping, all with minimal impact on traffic and city services. I would think the next step for the city would be to encourage development of the open space across the street from that while it works on a long-term concensus for the new land. I would look at Lakeville to see what land it has left, since it will be the key competition, and to Faribault (and Rice County), which has capitalized on its position along the highway.
    While Northfield would love to have industry in this new site, the reality is that there will be more success developing the area along the I-35 frontage road, where the old gas station is. (Couldn’t the fire departments use that for training and at least clear the site?)

  8. That $7 million dollar figure ought to wake people up. If it’s the figure to get it to “shovel ready,” that’s the $ outgo before anyone literally buys in, and given that, who would pay, other than the city? Remember how over the edge Owatonna got by building infrastructure out to Cabelas, and consider the market where many communities are issuing ZERO building permits. To do this before there’s solid evidence of an economic turnaround (in my lifetime?) I’d expect it would show a skewed cost/benefit against the taxpayers. Who benefits? Perhaps the Northfield construction companies, city attorneys, consultants, etc. paid to work on it, so in some sense it’s “economic development,” but one look at vacant residential developments in Lonsdale will show you where the “if we build it, they will come” theory lands a community. Along 19 on the west edge of town is good for warehouse district, it’s close to 35 and a train, closer to infrastructure add-ons, and 19 is slated to be 4 lane soon (in “DOT years”). The location makes sense, but pushing the development along seems premature. Elimination of annexation requirements is a red flag. It’s reminiscent of Rice County’s delusional 11 million square foot development project along Co. 46 from 19 down to 1 that was rammed through — will we learn from that? It’s good to hear people looking for answers to reasonable questions, seeking necessary information that’s not been provided. My hunch is that if the plan is laid out, it’s one that won’t stand scrutiny. We’ll see???? I hope…

  9. Just a quick comment…It would be helpful to have a good map or a consistent and clear description of the property involved used with these threads. I’m sure there’s a map somewhere in the city documents, but it doesn’t show up in a site search.
    Right now it’s not clear where the utilities end and what roads would be affected.

  10. What about letting businesses build their own sewer and water until the infrastructure costs are justified? That would make it immediately shovel ready.

  11. David, your idea works great, assuming the utilities end at the boundary of the site and the first business you bring in wants to be in the first lot.
    In most cities you need a master plan for the entire site, showing the phases if it is to be developed over time, and outlining the utilities and access roads, open space, wetlands, trails, etc. If the site is valuable, the developer pays the fees and does the infrastructure, or pays off the bonds if the city puts in the improvements. Costs are folded into the leasing rates. You can’t sell off parcels one at a time without a master plan that governs the entire site. You can run a trunk line to the first phase, with a plan showing how it will be extended later. It’s just like doing a residential subdivision in phases.
    In cities where businesses want to be, the developers are happy to develop the site. In marginal locations, like Northfield, the city might have to pay more of the costs. The key is to keep the costs at a point where the lease rates are competitive in the market.

  12. OK! And now to respond to this thread.

    Mr. Waskiw — Thanks for the words of encouragement! They mean a lot. There is so much to learn about Northfield, it’s a bit daunting.

    About the video clip, I’m not sure what might be going on behind the scenes or even up on the stage with the EDA. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if communication needs improvement. I know when I talked to Mr. O’Connell in his office the day before Thursday’s meeting to talk about infrastructure costs, he gave me a $4 million figure. Then, at the meeting, we heard a $7 million figure from Shopek’s presentation. I’m fairly certain O’Connell said he had had a copy of the PowerPoint presentation on Wednesday, indicating he would have seen the higher figure. Perhaps he does not agree with that total. It’s something I’ll have to ask him about. I’ll also have to try ask him those other questions you posed in your second comment.

    Norm — As a journalist, I’m always curious about when and if I might be getting stuffed information. As you said, the people who assembled the presentation are experienced professionals. They do have something to sell. Mr. Dunbar spoke in a direct, frank tone with his audience and I believed it was well-received. Still, I found something unsettling about all the cutseyness of the PowerPoint presentation. Why, for instance, did the presenters choose to personify the players in the proposed business park development deal as pink gumby figures? That slide seemed over-designed, given that the audience couldn’t even see the information on a perhaps more important projection — the one that showed costs. Maybe I’m nit picking.

    Betsey — Thanks for the compliment! Your reservations about the business park proposal make sense. I’m sure the process would benefit from greater contribution from more people in the community. But, just as some city officials hope to attract industrial developers to Northfield by investing the city’s money in infrastructure, I think officials should consider the importance of finding ways to attract more public support. That support could come if city officials make even more of an investment in spreading information about the proposed development.

    Mr. Henson — Thanks for posing your question about development strategy. I’ll try and find an answer as I move forward.

    Ms. Bretts — You talk sense. Hopefully, the people of Northfield look at major investments not so much with fear but with a healthy dose of skepticism. I posed some of the same questions you have about costs to the president of the engineering company who has worked with the city in the past, WSB & Associates. According to him, costs aren’t standard. Some materials such as steel, for example, are skyrocketing as of late. With all due respect, I’m not quite sure what you mean about a making a few phone calls to nail some information down. Phone calls to who would nail what down?

    As for the term “green,” it seems more and more people are making up definitions for it every day. Northfield’s economy seems to bank, in part, on its supposed uniqueness. Are the developments you mention in other nearby communities up to Northfield’s standards of green-ness?

    Ms. Overland — Are you saying the city should stop considering the development? What are some other ways you believe citizens could bring jobs and big taxpayers into the city?

  13. Ms. Obremski, it’s pretty straightforward. You do the research online and then call the appropriate people and interview them. As I have indicated before, the appropriate people would be the community development or EDA representatives in the cities with similar projects, the major developers who have done private projects and any state organizations that might have statistics. You also Google green building and you’ll get hundreds of hits. The Green Building Council issues LEED certification, which is a system for ranking projects in terms of how they meet green building standards. It’s almost impossible to find a building being planned now that isn’t LEED certified.
    Scott Neal in Eden Prairie, who has commented here and was in Northfield, might be a good interview. His staff has had probably the most experience in the area in economic development. As I have said before, Lakeville also has extensive experience. Talk to the people at Upper Lakes about what went into their decision to choose Northfield over the other sites they were considering. Talk to Jasnoch about how he has filled his business park with great businesses in cool buildings that I would guess are pretty green.
    As for Northfield’s standards of greenness, you have sipped the Kool-aid of the NIMPU party, I fear. Northfield didn’t invent green building, or business parks, and it’s cuteness and cows aren’t going to draw new businesses. Many businesses are located in business parks because the business owners have clients in the area or live in the area and are tired of driving somewhere else to work. Cheap land isn’t enough. A guy with his business and family and church and workers in Maple Grove isn’t going to uproot everything and come here.
    People here need to study the competition, talk to the folks who have been successful in developing business parks, be realistic about their prospects and work like hell to be competitive.

  14. I got the impression from the presentation Thursday night that Northfield taxpayers will be paying consultants for many months (or years) before things fall into place and the land is “shovel ready.” I had trouble seeing the data on the screen. Very glad Bonnie was there to report on it.

    The new EDA director (Gunderson?) filmed the meeting and I would have thought the tape would be made available by now.

    I am disappointed that some of the mayor candidates don’t seem to be following this business park plan very closely. I give Paul Hager and Eduardo Wolle the most points here.

  15. Thanks for formatting the files and putting them on the Internet Griff. I consider these files to be important in understanding a critical aspect of the proposed business park: Finances.

    According to the data in the costs sheet of this presentation, the development planners estimated $7.47 million to install what I believe would be a 100-acre* park. The project’s costs would theoretically be shared by Northfielders and the anticipated industrial developers.

    *I called Shopek to confirm the size of the park. But, Shopek referred all press questions to city officials as per request, he said, of the Community Development Director Brian O’Connell. I left messages for O’Connell and Jody Gunderson, the city’s economic development director. Gunderson returned my call but, as a brand-new hire, he could not confirm the figure.

    The Economic Development Authority did not discuss the business park presentation during its meeting on Thursday morning because three of six members were absent. However, Gunderson informally discussed his thoughts on a future marketing campaign for Northfield, which could cost roughly $60,000, to attract more developers to the city.

    I asked Gunderson on Friday for details about the finances of that campaign. He called me back later that afternoon while I was at the Minnesota State Fair and so I could not hear him that well over the people hawking chocolate-covered bacon on a stick. However, I am fairly certain he said the plan was only in its very beginning stages and so did not have many more details.

    Northfielders will be asked to prioritize the city’s development goals in the coming months. Relatively few people attended the informational meeting for the proposed business park and apparently few, if any, attempted to find out more about what occurred at the meeting later by visiting the city’s Web site: The link to the presentation file had not been working until I notified the community development office about it on Friday, more than a week after the presentation.

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