Note: Below is the conclusion of a series of stories I have written about Northfield’s proposals to annex land from Greenvale Township and build an industrial park. All the materials I have posted about the proposals will soon be presented together on a Web page linked through LocallyGrownNorthfield.org. As I move on to cover other stories, I encourage discussion to continue on this important matter.
In the eyes of some Northfielders, the city is down by two, at least.
Faribault, a sometimes rival city 13 miles south, approved Malt-O-Meal‘s plans to erect a warehouse just beyond its city limits in 2008. Malt-O-Meal, with its large plant off State Highway 19 in Northfield, is one of Northfield’s largest employers.
Watching the hometown players grow elsewhere was hard for those hoping for economic growth in Northfield. Consequently, citizens are now faced with a difficult decision: Deciding how much risk they’re willing to take to make the city shine in the eyes of attractive industrial developers.
“I think that we have not been very aggressive at pursuing opportunities to grow,” Richard Estenson, spokesman for Northfield’s Economic Development Authority, said in late September. “So, my role has been in trying to build a consensus around having yet another piece of land large enough for companies that are here now and need to grow and those that are looking for communities to grow in.”
In response to that widely shared perception, city officials have been looking for opportunities, and in August, negotiations began in earnest on a proposal to annex 530 acres of farmland from adjoining Greenvale Township, with the hope of marketing the site to one or more industrial developers.
In a city unused to playing the offense, the plan spurred debate among citizens. And some conflict sparked too among residents of Greenvale, which lies northwest of the city. Greenvale supervisors and some residents are concerned about what the township will lose in the annexation, and they are skeptical about ceding valuable land to a city that might not find a use for it for decades.
According to Joel Walinski, Northfield’s interim city administrator, the practice of priming land for development without having a single interested developer is atypical for Northfield.
But there were also unusual opportunities associated with the plan. Namely, three Greenvale farmers, represented by real estate agency Land Vista LLC, approached city officials about two years ago to apply for annexation before the city even had to ask. The land they offered, with the addition of a small parcel Saint Olaf College agreed to have annexed, would form a contiguous stretch of land bordered to the south by a rural portion of State Highway 19 (see map in previous posts).
“We really don’t have any end users in sight,” Walinski said late in September, talking about the proposed business park. “I do believe part of it is, there are probably a number of developers that are sitting back and watching the Northfield process because they have seen things go on here in the past where it has been a struggle, quite frankly, for businesses to move in. They’re waiting to see, ‘Is the city going to take some steps, or not take some steps?’ ”
A few Northfield citizens are afraid taking advantage of the anticipated smooth annexation agreement with Greenvale could cause the city to take steps in the wrong direction, however. One of the main drawbacks to developing the site into an industrial park is its distance from a major highway, according to some residents.
“Faribault is in close proximity to I-35, so vendors could easily get in and out with deliveries,” Bright Spencer said in an online discussion thread about the annexation and business park posted on LocallyGrownNorthfield.org and RepJNorthfield.org. “This is a huge reason, around the country, and for many decades, it’s not ‘If you build it, they will come.’ It’s ‘If you build it right off the expressway, they will come.'”
Ross Currier, Northfield Downtown Development Corporation executive director and a former Northfield planning commissioner, has also expressed concern about transportation . He has said he would have preferred city administrators to come up with a transportation feasibility study before proceeding any further with the annexation and proposed park.
In addition to questions about traffic flow, citizens and city government workers are still looking for answers to questions about finances, how to attract developers and which developers Northfield would like to attract. There are also some environmental concerns.
“We are never going to get rid of all the risks,” Walinski said of the concerns about the proposed development. “I think a lot of it goes back to how much money we are going to spend on this. I don’t think that’s been determined yet. But I think we have to put those different options on the board and have the people decide.”
As discussions about the city’s economic development continue through the upcoming elections, Estenson said there is yet another challenge he hopes to overcome.
“Very candidly, I think we’re suffering right now from a lack of some leadership,” Estenson said of Northfield’s governance. “While I respect greatly the role civic leaders play and how much work is involved, it’s too chaotic for people to have confidence in what is going on. We need the people who are true leaders to show themselves as true leaders.”
To a certain extent, that chaos could be an remnant, however, of the philosophy of John North, who founded the city in 1855.
“His vision was that concerned citizens from all walks of life would come together for the betterment of the community,” said Daniel Freeman, a local historian who spent much of his career as the proprietor of several downtown businesses. Freeman, an advocate for the development of the business park, said he sees Greenvale farmers, Saint Olaf College and Northfield citizens coming together to create an opportunity in the land deal.
He said sometimes, however, Northfield’s affinity for discourse can linger too long in the discussion phase, and then, he said, decisions “don’t get made.”